Britain and France have announced an “enhanced action plan” over the next week to combat attempts by migrants and refugees to cross the Channel from northern France, using small boats in dangerous conditions.
The two countries’ interior ministers, the UK’s Sajid Javid and France’s Christophe Castaner, spoke to each other by phone over the weekend and have both tweeted about the plan. Javid is to chair a meeting today with the relevant UK authorities.
It’s thought the plan will involve action targeting people trafficking gangs, and to raise awareness among migrants of the potential dangers. There are fears that people may drown as they try to cross one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
The UK’s National Crime Agency says French authorities have disrupted numerous attempts to make the perilous journey. Several arrests of suspected people smugglers have been made.
Reports say more than 200 people have tried to cross the Channel in dinghies and small vessels since November, with over 100 having attempted the crossing since Christmas.
Many come from Iran and it’s thought they have more funds than other refugee groups to pay people-smugglers. Others are fleeing war, conflict and poverty in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are claims that traffickers and even groups of migrants themselves have been buying small boats. There is also some evidence that traffickers have been encouraging people to make the hazardous trip from France, where authorities have closed makeshift refugee camps.
One French MP said smugglers were using uncertainty over Brexit to make false assertions to migrants that they should cross now as security will be tighter later.
There have been calls in the UK for five specialist patrol boats currently on duty in the Mediterranean Sea to return to the Channel. At the moment only one cutter is patrolling the waters between England and France.
However, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid – who cut short a foreign holiday to deal with what he had declared a “major incident” – said there were “no easy answers” to the problem.
Compared to other influxes of migrants and refugees, the numbers trying to cross the Channel recently are tiny. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said it was “easy to stir up passions”, but other European countries faced far higher numbers of people coming from elsewhere.
The migrant crossings have dominated the headlines in the UK in recent days, with newspapers and politicians referring to a “crisis”. The risk of people drowning is real, but the numbers are dwarfed by those in countries such as Turkey and Jordan who have taken millions of Syrian refugees.
The main UK opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said there was a “duty to reach out the hand of humanity” to people facing danger and seeking safety. The Church of England called over the weekend for people to show compassion. Local charities have reported a rise in the number of child refugees travelling alone.