Night voyages across the Channel: Frigid water, flimsy boats

CALAIS, France (AP) — 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 and 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.

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 is financing the new effort, as it has in the past.

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.

On Friday, a motorcycle patrol found evidence that an Iranian migrant had camped out on a beach near Ambleuteuse, 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Calais.

“The motorcycle patrol has found this one-man campsite,” Lieut. Col. Jean-Luc Pereau a gendarme leading the beach patrol, told the Associated Press accompanying the search.

A survival blanket and a torn-up police report showed the person was Iranian, he said.

The patrols, who talk to town folk and comb beaches, seek witness accounts and evidence of migrants looking to launch a boat.

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 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 for the boat, but claimed he didn’t know which beach the group left from or the exact date of their ill-fated journey.

Smugglers are suspected of expanding their operations to selling crossings on 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.

Still to come in the step-up in border security are drones flying over the area.

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, providing real-time information with images of the ports of Calais and Dunkirk, the Eurotunnel and Eurostar.

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.

___

Mstyslav Chernov in Ambleuteuse, France.

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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