French fishing boats targeted as migrants make their break for Britain

An increasing number of migrants are choosing to make their break to the UK via French fishing boats as the number of crossings spikes.

French fishing boats targeted as migrants make their break for Britain
Photo: AFP
Laurent Merlin, a French fisherman who plies the Channel coast from his home port of Boulogne-sur-Mer, is not used to his boat being seen as a catch.
But twice within the same week he arrived for work to find his vessel vandalised by would-be thieves.
“At 7 am a colleague from another boat called me at home to tell me that the door to the bridge was open,” Laurent told AFP as he unloaded a catch of cod and plaice. 
“I went to look and was surprised to see the door splintered, the hinge broken, the engine counter ripped out and cables cut,” he said of the damage caused by an attempted hot-wiring. 
Those coveting his 15-metre (50-foot) vessel are people smugglers, who have broken into around a dozen fishing boats on France's northern coast in recent 
weeks, aiming to use them to ferry migrants across the Channel to Britain.
On two occasions they have succeeded.
Migrants waving on a boat during a rescue operation by Gendarmerie Maritime's Athos ship. Photo: AFP
The number of migrants attempting to cross the Channel, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, rose to 504 last year, up from a mere 13 in 2017.
The phenomenon has sparked concern in Britain, where the Conservative government is eager to be seen as tough on immigration, and promises of a crackdown on smugglers from the French government.
An estimated 276 people managed to reach British territorial waters in 2018, mostly in rubber dinghies during the final three months of the year, according to the French interior ministry. 
The arrivals of predominantly Iranian asylum seekers have been described as a “major incident” by Britain's interior minister, who has announced the deployment of a navy ship to reinforce patrols in the Channel.
'Fear and anger'
In northern France, fishermen are now pressuring the authorities to boost security around Boulogne-sur-Mer and other ports along the coast, which are home to thousands of working boats and pleasure craft.
“In the beginning there was concern… and now it's escalating fast, there's fear and also anger,” Stephane Pinto, vice-president of the fishing committee in the Hauts-de-France region told AFP.
Photo: AFP
Some boat owners have begun taking their own precautions such as pulling the battery out of the engine at night. 
“The boats are our working tools and we can't even be sure of going out to sea when we arrive in the morning,” Jean-Yves Noel, one owner in Boulogne-sur-Mer, the biggest fishing port in France, told AFP.
The first theft which brought the sea-crossings to international attention occurred in November when a group of migrants stole a boat, the Epervier, and sailed it overnight to Dover in Britain.
British authorities intercepted the 17 people on board, including three children. 
Change in tactics
The incident brought the sudden change in tactics from migrants in Calais to public attention.
For decades, tens of thousands of migrants have clustered on France's northern coast, awaiting their moment to break into a truck and make the short ferry ride or train trip through the Channel tunnel to Britain.
But migrants and local charities say that security controls at transport infrastructure has made stowing away increasingly difficult, forcing migrants to look at alternative methods.
A new smuggling network for Iranian asylum seekers is also thought to be behind the attempted crossings.
Photo: AFP
“According to the migrants, they sail the boats themselves,” Vincent Kasprzyk, a senior border police officer near Calais, told AFP.
“Smugglers help them with the boats and tell them to head towards the red beacon at Dover,” he added, referring to the British port which is clearly visible when the weather is good.
Last week, the French government announced an “action plan” to put an end to the attempted crossings, which will include more regular police patrols of the port and beaches used to launch dinghies.
Money has been earmarked for video surveillance, extra lighting and even alarms for the boats in Boulogne-sur-Mer, with part of the budget paid by Britain. 
Police have also been working with local boatyards and shops, asking owners to report any suspicious attempts to buy equipment or vessels.
Out at sea, the number of French patrol boats has been doubled in the 21 miles (33 kilometres) of sea that separate France and Britain at its narrowest point around Dover and Calais.
Up to four are now deployed each evening in calm weather.
“We are going to put in place a series of measures to make it as difficult as possible to steal boats and to stop these crossings,” Jean-Philippe Venin, a senior regional security official, told AFP.

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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.