Is Brexit driving the surge in migrants crossing the English Channel by boat?

French authorities have warned of a surge in the number of migrants attempting the dangerous crossing of the English Channel by boat to reach Britain, which they have suggested could reflect fears among migrants that the border will be shut after Brexit.

Is Brexit driving the surge in migrants crossing the English Channel by boat?
Photo: AFP

French and British maritime authorities intercepted 18 migrants trying to cross the Channel on Tuesday, the latest in a string of attempts to reach England by boat.

French gendarmes picked up nine migrants on board a small fishing boat that was detected by a British ferry around 5 am five miles off Dunkirk and about 50 minutes later rescuers from Britain's RNLI lifeboat charity rescued a second boat drifting around 13 kilometres from the British port of Dover.
There has been a sharp rise in the number of migrants attempting to cross the Channel from France since October, despite dangers posed by heavy traffic, strong currents and plunging temperatures.

In addition to Tuesday's rescues, eighteen migrants were rescued at sea overnight Wednesday to Thursday, eight more Friday morning, and five on Saturday. 
France warns of surge in migrant attempts to reach Britain by boat
Photo: AFP
In 2018 a total of around 61 migrants have been rescued as they were making the dangerous journey — 48 since October — compared to just 13 for the whole of 2017.
And while there are currently no concrete explanations for this spike in crossings, it has been suggested that Brexit could be playing a role in “accelerating” migrants' plans to reach the UK.
“We think they want to leave at all costs now because Brexit hasn't yet happened,” Captain Ingrid Parrot, a spokeswoman for the French maritime police based in Cherbourg told AFP. 
According to the maritime police this could be because of fears that after Britain leave the EU there will be tighter controls on immigration. 
“There is no definite theory but it seems like Brexit could be accelerating their [ the migrants'] activities,” lieutenant Claire Traverse, deputy spokesperson for the French maritime police based in Cherbourg told The Local, adding that the relatively mild autumn could also be behind the surge.
“Migrants might believe that it is a good time to make the crossing because the weather has not been too rough,” she said. “But it is still dangerous especially because of the maritime traffic.” 
But this isn't the first time authorities have noticed a surge in attempted crossings by boat.
Back in 2016, officials began seeing attempts by migrants to use dinghies and inflatable rafts to cross the 33-kilometre (20-mile) Strait of Dover, one of the world's busiest shipping channels as security has been progressively stepped up around the ports, making stowing away on trucks increasingly difficult.
Traverse highlighted the fact that the crossings are still life threatening even in temperatures of 13C to 14C and the heavy maritime traffic which makes the crossing very dangerous.
Luckily so far no migrant drownings have been reported since 2016. 
“We're working with other groups, including police on the ground to achieve two things,” said Traverse. “The first is to save those in distress and the second is to secure the maritime routes.”
Britain's interior ministry said Thursday that 14 people had been rescued overnight, bringing the total number to 78 in the last two weeks.
“We have stepped up deployments of our coastal patrol vessels along the South-East coast in light of recent events,” the ministry said.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.