0853 GMT November 21, 2019
As crossing attempts surge at the close of summer amid rumors that Brexit will mean tighter border restrictions, criminal gangs are loading inflatable boats up to five times their capacity. Previously, people smugglers would put about eight passengers on each vessel, the Guardian reported.
Maddy Allen of the UK-based charity Help Refugees, which works with more than 1,500 migrants around Calais and Dunkirk, said, “Up to 30 a boat is now commonplace. Boats are overcrowded; we’ve had children knocked off the side.
“There was a boat last week where four people ended up in the water. It’s often the responsibility of the other people on the boat to drag them out; then the boat will usually either make it to the UK or be intercepted and taken back to French territory.”
The heightened desperation follows emergency talks in Paris last Thursday between the UK home secretary, Priti Patel, and her French counterpart, Christophe Castaner, to intensify joint efforts to tackle the Channel crossings. The talks concluded with the UK government considering increasing the amount it pays France to deal with the issue, prompting critics to say the intervention will simply push people to pursue more dangerous routes.
Migrants have been arriving in the UK almost daily over the past week. So far this year more than 1,000 people, including many children, are understood to have entered the UK after crossing the Channel in small boats, compared with fewer than 300 for the whole of 2018.
Most attempt the crossing in inflatable boats with outboard motors that can safely carry about six people. Beaches around the seaside village of Wissant, about six miles from Calais, have become a favored stretch for boats leaving France.
“We’re hearing all the same issues associated with the Mediterranean crossings: The boats start to take on water,” said Allen.
“Then there’s not having the proper lifejackets.”
Rachel Sykes of the charity Project Play, which works with about 300 children in the Grande-Synthe area of Dunkirk, said some minors had been taken to hospital after falling into the sea during failed crossings. She added, “Children often emphasize it’s not a safe thing for them to be doing, which is heartbreaking. That means they’ll be forced to do it again and again.”
Charities say the mental health of migrants in northern France is worse than they have ever known, and more serious than seen in the Calais camp destroyed by the French authorities in 2016.
Chloé Lorieux, program coordinator of Doctors of the World UK, part of the Médecins du Monde network, said self-harm, substance abuse and depression are more widespread.
She said, “From a mental health point of view it’s worse: Their attempts to cross are more and more difficult. The [Calais camp] was awful, but at least there were places where people could rest. Now there is no private space, they’re evicted in the early morning.”
Clare Morris, cofounder of Project Play, said, “We don’t know how often each family tries, plus it varies from family to family, but it is frequent. Children will often tell us on consecutive days about what has happened the previous night in relation to crossings.”
Meanwhile, police are investigating the death of a woman who fell from a boat in poor weather while crossing the Channel on August 9. Last Friday off the Belgian coast, police found the body of an Iraqi migrant wearing a homemade lifejacket of empty water bottles, who had drowned while trying to swim to the UK.