France has already doubled the number of coastguard boats

A crew member from the Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3 rescue vessel throws a buoy and a rope to rescue a migrant, after he dived on January 4, 2019 from the vessel in the cold Mediterranean off Malta’s coast, in a attempt to reach the shore by swimming. — AFP

PARIS: The French government announced an “action plan” Friday to counter attempts by migrants to cross the Channel to Britain by sea, which it promises will end a phenomenon that has alarmed the Conservative government in London. An increase in crossings by asylum-seekers, mostly Iranians, has led Home Secretary Sajid Javid to declare a “major incident” with the government under pressure to provide a response.

“This plan should enable us to end these crossings,” French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner was quoted as saying in the statement on Friday, adding that they were “not only illegal but also extremely dangerous. “It’s in our interest, as well as the United Kingdom’s, to do everything to prevent new networks (of people smugglers) developing which would likely attract irregular migrants to our shores again,” it added.
The plan will see stepped-up police patrols around ports where some migrants have attempted to steal boats, as well as surveillance of beaches where dinghies have been launched from. A British navy ship was patrolling the Channel on Friday in addition to four other British coastguard boats which watch over the 21 miles of sea that separate France and Britain at its narrowest point.

France has already doubled the number of coastguard boats in the Channel to two-four per night depending on the weather, a spokeswoman for French marine operations in the area told AFP this week. The new French measures will be in addition to a joint action plan announced on December 31 by the French and British government, according to the statement from the French interior ministry. Castaner is to travel to London soon to discuss this joint plan, which is expected to include combined operations at sea and greater intelligence sharing about smuggler networks.

Overblown fears?
Earlier Friday, French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux had downplayed the the phenomenon of sea crossings in the Channel by comparing the number of arrivals in Britain to the number of people crossing the Mediterranean by sea. “We are not talking about the same level at all,” Griveaux said.

A total of 504 people, the vast majority in the last two months, attempted to cross the Channel to Britain in 2018, with 276 successful in reaching British waters, according to the latest figures from the French interior ministry. Data from the UN’s refugee agency showed that 55,756 people crossed the Mediterranean to Spain in 2018.

Griveaux said that “there is no requirement to increase any further the resources there (on the Channel coast) which are working very well and are proving their worth.” Explanations for the sudden spurt in sea crossings vary. The weather in recent months has been unusually calm, coastguard and security officials say.

Others have suggested that Britain’s impending exit from the European Union next March could be playing a role, prompting fears among migrants that Britain will clamp down even more on immigration post-Brexit. But Fabien Sudry, the top security official in the northern Pas-de-Calais region, told AFP recently that the most likely reason is the arrival over the last month of larger-than-usual numbers of Iranians around the port of Calais. They have attracted, or led to the creation of, a new people-smuggling network which is trying to avoid increasingly tough security controls in the port, where migrants try to stow away on trucks heading for Britain. – AFP