In an operation witnessed by AFP on Monday, 56 migrants, including a pregnant woman and children, were plucked from their flimsy inflatable boat whose engine had broken down.
Dozens of people were crammed into the vessel which left the wide sandy beaches of the French coast in the early hours of Monday morning in a bid to complete the short trip across the narrow stretch of water.
But only two hours after leaving, their outboard engine stalled, leaving the mostly male group from the Middle East and Africa drifting in one of the world’s biggest shipping lanes.
“The situation in the boat was very difficult, no water, nothing,” said 28-year-old Mohammed once safely aboard the French rescue ship, the Abeille Languedoc, which is based in the nearby French port of Boulogne-sur-Mer.
The Egyptian, attempting his first crossing, said he was not sure he would try it again.
“Too stressful,” he said.
A pregnant woman was one of the first to be rescued, along with a girl of seven or eight in a green anorak who collapsed into tears once in the hands of the crew.
The 4,000-tonne rescue vessel, a tug boat usually deployed to tow ships in distress back to port, received a call from the regional rescue coordination centre in Gris-Nez on Monday at around 7:00 am to intervene following Mayday calls from the inflatable.
It had been leased by the French navy for rescue operations.
“The Abeille is 4,000 tonnes. It’s like an elephant heading after a mouse,” captain Pascal Le Gentil told AFP as he steered towards the GPS coordinates given for the dinghy.
Channel crossings by boat by migrants and asylum seekers were rare prior to 2019 but have since exploded — with 28,526 registered in 2021.
Deaths have also increased, with at least 27 people lost on November 24 last year in the single biggest disaster.
The crossings have become a repeated source of tension between London and Paris, with the right-wing Conservative government in Britain urging France to do more and staking its reputation on stemming the flow.
The British parliament recently passed controversial new legislation that increases the penalties for people-smuggling to a maximum life sentence in prison and imposes jail terms for anyone arriving illegally in the country.
Last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson also unveiled much-criticised plans to send anyone entering the UK illegally, as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1, to Rwanda in central Africa.
Around 7,000 migrants and asylum seekers have reached the UK so far in 2022, more than three times the number recorded by this time last year,