Night voyages across the Channel: Frigid water, flimsy boats

  • In this photo taken Tuesday, Jan.15, 2019, Ahmed, from Ahwaz in southwest Iran, gestures in a temporary apartment as he visits his wife and children in Calais, northern France, Land, sea and air patrols are combing the beaches, dunes and frigid, murky coastal waters of northern France in a bid to end an unusual high-risk tactic by migrants, mostly Iranians: trying to sneak across the English Channel in rubber rafts. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

  • In this photo taken on Tuesday, Jan.15, 2019, Ahmed, from Ahwaz in southwest Iran, looks up next to tents in Calais, northern France, Land, sea and air patrols are combing the beaches, dunes and frigid, murky coastal waters of northern France, the gateway to Britain, in a bid to stop migrants, mostly Iranian, from an ever more risky tactic to sneak across the English Channel _ in small boats and rubber rafts. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

  • This photo taken on Wednesday Jan. 16, 2019 shows the port de Boulogne-Sur-Mer, northern France. Border control officers patrolling the land, sea and air of northern France are combing beaches, dunes and the frigid, murky coastal waters in a bid to end a high-risk but growing tactic by a group of mostly Iranian migrants desperate to get to Britain: sneaking across the English Channel in rubber boats. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

CALAIS, France — One migrant family’s night voyage across the English Channel ended an hour after it began, back on a beach in northern France, after their overloaded rubber boat listed and two small Iranian children slid into the frigid, murky water before being hauled back to safety.

“After one hour, we came back on the beach,” said the children’s 37-year-old father — who doesn’t exclude trying again to get into Britain.

The man, who identified himself only as Ahmed, is a Christian from Ahwaz in southwest Iran. He is among hundreds of desperate Iranian migrants around the northern French port of Calais who are trying the high-risk tactic of using small boats and motorized rubber rafts to get to Britain.

A few successful crossings and the horrifying conditions in small, makeshift camps in Calais feed the dream.

“Here it’s dangerous, 50/50,” said Ahmed, referring to the camp where he set up his family near the dunes of Calais. “But in the water, it’s also 50/50.”

He said he felt targeted at home because he converted to Christianity.

French border police and maritime officials are patrolling the land, sea and air of northern France, combing beaches, dunes and coastal waters in a bid to end the small boat crossings. Britain has pressured France to do more and has also sent funds to help.

French authorities counted 71 small boat crossings or attempts in 2018 — 57 in November and December alone, according to the Interior Ministry. Forty of the crossings were successful, with the majority of the 504 migrants who tried managing to make it to British waters or the coast.

In 2017, there were only 12 such crossings.

To date, there are no known cases of migrants drowning on the English Channel crossings, but officials worry it is just a matter of time.

The stepped-up security, announced earlier this month, is beginning to pay off. A patrol discovered a rubber boat and four people this week in the dunes south of Calais, a top French border control official told The Associated Press.

The goal is to save lives in one of the world’s busiest and most treacherous waterways, known for its strong currents and cold waters. Officials also want to catch smugglers who appear to have found a new money-making niche, adding to their specialty of hiding migrants in the freight trucks that cross the Channel on ferries or trains.

Most migrants in northern France still opt to hide among vegetables or other cargo in trucks, trying to outwit heartbeat detectors, scans and other sophisticated equipment seeking to rout them out at ports in Calais and Dunkirk and at the Eurotunnel.

About 3,000 migrants were discovered hiding in trucks in the region in 2018, Franck Toulliou, the No. 2 Air and Border Police official, said.

The Calais region has long been a magnet for migrants hoping to settle in Britain.

Officials have no clear explanation for the spike in bids by Iranian migrants trying to reach British shores by sea in small boats. Some media reports have speculated that migrants are desperately trying to reach Britain by March 29, when the country is scheduled to leave the European Union, fearing increased border checks after that date.

But Toulliou said Brexit will change nothing for those trying to enter Britain illegally.

“The level of controls (after Brexit) will not be lower or higher. It is at 100 percent,” he said.

The cliffs of Dover, visible in good weather, are irresistible to the desperate people huddled around camp fires in hideouts around Calais, defying police who regularly clear them out. A huge makeshift migrant camp in Calais went up in flames during a dismantling operation in 2016.

Ahmed said he, his wife, 8-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son boarded the rubber boat about two months ago but the unsteady vessel quickly listed to one side. Eight people helped pull his children back aboard.

He says a friend arranged the smuggling boat, but claimed he didn’t know which French beach the group left from or the exact date of their ill-fated journey.

Smugglers are suspected of expanding their operations to use the small boats that Iranian migrants originally started to buy on their own, according to Toulliou.

“Iranians didn’t want to … pay (smuggling) networks,” mostly run by Iraqi Kurds, he said. “Initially, they preferred to buy their own boats.”

Small motorized rafts can cost from 1,000 to 4,000 euros ($1,135 to $4,545) — often cheaper than buying one’s way onto a truck, he said.

Ports have taken measures to lock down vessels after a fishing boat stolen in November from Boulogne-Sur-Mer reached Britain, and boats have been tampered with in the small French port of Gravelines, between Calais and Dunkirk.

Toulliou said no Iranian smuggling network has yet been discovered, even though France dismantled 26 smuggling networks in 2018 along the northern coast.

Reinforced security also means foot patrols on beaches, sometimes with helicopter support, and patrols on the Channel itself by France’s Maritime Prefecture, which coordinates rescues of the often off-course travelers.

Planned long before the spike in small boat crossings, a Joint Information and Coordination Center, opened in November. It is staffed by French and British Border Force police, provides real-time information with images of the ports of Calais and Dunkirk, the Eurotunnel and Eurostar.

Still to come are drones flying over the area.

The high-tech detection is likely to only make Ahmed’s life worse in his small camp, which is rife with ethnic and religious divisions.

His wife and children are currently being housed in a small apartment, on doctor’s orders, but that is temporary. He said he was beaten in the head by Muslims during a Bible-reading session, showing a photo of his bandages.

Ahmed vowed he will try again to cross the Channel by boat.

“(But) we (do) not have the money to take to the mafia” now, he said.


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