refugee crisis

Smugglers Are Stealing Fishing Boats to Ferry Migrants Across the Channel

Brexit might be encouraging them to take more risks.

by Timothée Vinchon and Sophie Bourlet
13 March 2019, 9:32am

Ahmad and Jafar in the Calais migrant camp. Photos: Timothée Vinchon and Sophie Bourlet

This article originally appeared on VICE France

On a freezing cold Monday morning, at the Gambetta dock in the northern French port city of Boulogne-sur-Mer, a few brave souls are gathering their overnight catches.

Pascal Deborgher is the captain of the L’Épervier fishing boat. On the 17th of November of last year, he received a strange phone call, which he recites from memory: "Hello sir, what is your boat doing in Dover? You're blocking the ferry passage." His stolen boat was ultimately intercepted by British border authorities, with 17 migrants hidden aboard. Though Deborgher says he doesn't condone the theft, he also doesn't think the migrants are to blame. "We're not really mad at them," he tells me. "It's more the politicians we're angry at. Something's not working. If we had to save ourselves at any cost, we'd do the same thing."

Last October, Stéphane Pinto, the vice president of the regional maritime fishing council, had the door to his boat forced open and the control panel ripped off: "It was like a scene from a movie – they rip the cables and just try to start it any which way they can." For Pinto, who had been in the habit of leaving his keys on the motor, the breach of trust was quite upsetting. He ended up installing a complex security system, with a private guard, boat alarms and video surveillance.

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Stephane Pinto

The fishermen find it hard to believe they're at the centre of a global storm. For a long time, Calais and the Côte d'Opale have been the most popular ports of entry for migrants to reach Britain, with almost 15,000 crossings attempted in 2018. Within the past few months, the number of illegal border crossings by boat has exploded. In 2018, 71 boat crossing attempts were recorded, with 57 in November and December alone; by contrast, there were only 23 in 2016. According to British authorities, at least 539 migrants tried – successfully or otherwise – to cross the Channel by boat last year.

The prevailing belief here is that people are rushing to cross before Brexit, while some think it could be down to unseasonably warmer weather than usual over the past year. Whatever the reason, smugglers are charging migrants between €1,100 (£945) to €6,800 (£5,840) for a passage attempt; the exact fee depends on risk and demand.

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Pascal Deborgher

Ahmad gave it a try two months ago. "I told the smuggler we had better have life jackets, but he laughed in my face," he says. Ahmad was right to be worried: about a kilometre into their journey, at the first big wave, the dinghy tipped and everyone was thrown overboard. Despite the smuggler's insistence that they continue, the migrants made it to a nearby beach and called the authorities. Ahmad's wife and son were rescued but have been in hospital ever since. He's waiting for them to recover fully before he decides what to do next. "There are always mafias offering you an escape," he adds, "assuming you have £3,000 to give them."

"It's very difficult to get back on this type of boat," says Gérard Barreau, president of Boulogne's National Society of Sea Rescuers (SNSM). "If you fall into the sea in winter, you have about seven or eight minutes before you get hypothermia. After 15, you're dead." He's not surprised to hear Ahmad's story. Since October of 2018, 21 people have been rescued while making the crossing, including several in critical condition. The SNSM's team of volunteers has been called six times by the Regional Centre for Surveillance and Rescue to come to the aid of small boats in distress.

"The Channel poses all kinds of risks to seasoned sailors, to say nothing of beginners," Barreau adds. Barreau is always shocked by the amateur nature of the attempts. "The smugglers can't handle it. We've found four-meter inflatable boats with tiny motors – one even had paddles! It's ridiculous. You have the shoals creating this huge current, then 400 to 600 boats going both ways every day, and a water temperature near five degrees this time of year – it's suicide."

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At the migrant camp in Calais, Ahmad is joined by Sina, 32, a hydraulic engineer. Sina fled Iran after the government tried to force him into the the military. He left his wife and family and packed into a truck that brought him to Europe. When I ask what's he's going to do next, Sina laughs: "My wife would never let me take a boat; it's too risky." However, after 30-odd attempts to get through the tunnel by truck, Sina can understand people's desperation.

Jafar is willing to take the risk. The 28-year-old, who arrived just a few weeks ago, is determined to reach Britain by sea. He has watched his friends make countless fruitless attempts to drive through the tunnel. "We have a saying in Iran: no colour is darker than black," Jafar tells me. "Taking to the seas isn't as black as what we were experiencing in Iran. Of course, it's not easy living here either; the conditions are very difficult – all the more so in winter. Not to mention the police always coming around, taking our tents and telling us to get out, even when it's snowing or windy."

François Guennoc is the vice president of the Migrants' Hostel, an association that provides tents, hot meals and psychological support to the migrants here in Calais. "We have around 500 police officers assigned to this campsite," he says. "That's around one per migrant. But that's not including the other security officials in the area."

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Guennoc goes on to explain that, since September, police actions against the campsite have become more and more regular – roughly one every 48 hours. In his assessment of the crisis in Calais, the human-rights lawyer Jacques Toubon told me in December that the psychological distress of a "population who can't find a permanent place to be, and are in perpetual motion" is extreme here. Do these factors explain the extreme increase in desperate crossings? Ahmad is sure of it: "You know hell? Well, this here is hell," he says. "It's the jungle. Animals could live here, but not humans, and certainly not kids. We have to leave!"

The minister of the interior, Christophe Castaner, announced on the 30th of December, 2018, a partnership with the British government for a "departmental plan of strengthened action", specifically aimed at improving surveillance of beaches and ports. Guennoc doesn't think this will work. "They're looking at the problem backwards," he says. "At the Italian border, they have police to keep people from entering; and here, we have police to keep people from leaving."