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January 18, 2019

French fishing boats targeted as migrants seek way to Britain

French fishing boats targeted as migrants seek way to Britain
'A migrant boat spotted by a French patrol in the Channel, where the number of attempted crossings from France to Britain has surged' - By: GENDARMERIE MARITIME/AFP/File HO

Laurent Merlin, a French fisherman who plies the Channel coast from his home port of Boulogne-sur-Mer, is not used to his boat being seen as a catch.

But twice within the same week he arrived for work to find his vessel vandalised by would-be thieves.

"At 7 am a colleague from another boat called me at home to tell me that the door to the bridge was open," Laurent told AFP as he unloaded a catch of cod and plaice.

"I went to look and was surprised to see the door splintered, the hinge broken, the engine counter ripped out and cables cut," he said of the damage caused by an attempted hot-wiring.

Those coveting his 15-metre (50-foot) vessel are people smugglers, who have broken into around a dozen fishing boats on France's northern coast in recent weeks, aiming to use them to ferry migrants across the Channel to Britain.

On two occasions they have succeeded.

The number of migrants attempting to cross the Channel, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, rose to 504 last year, up from a mere 13 in 2017.

The phenomenon has sparked concern in Britain, where the Conservative government is eager to be seen as tough on immigration, and promises of a crackdown on smugglers from the French government.

An estimated 276 people managed to reach British territorial waters in 2018, mostly in rubber dinghies during the final three months of the year, according to the French interior ministry.

The arrivals of predominantly Iranian asylum seekers have been described as a "major incident" by Britain's interior minister, who has announced the deployment of a navy ship to reinforce patrols in the Channel.

- 'Fear and anger' -

In northern France, fishermen are now pressuring the authorities to boost security around Boulogne-sur-Mer and other ports along the coast, which are home to thousands of working boats and pleasure craft.

"In the beginning there was concern... and now it's escalating fast, there's fear and also anger," Stephane Pinto, vice-president of the fishing committee in the Hauts-de-France region told AFP.

Some boat owners have begun taking their own precautions such as pulling the battery out of the engine at night.

"The boats are our working tools and we can't even be sure of going out to sea when we arrive in the morning," Jean-Yves Noel, one owner in Boulogne-sur-Mer, the biggest fishing port in France, told AFP.

The first theft which brought the sea-crossings to international attention occurred in November when a group of migrants stole a boat, the Epervier, and sailed it overnight to Dover in Britain.

British authorities intercepted the 17 people on board, including three children.

- Change in tactics -

The incident brought the sudden change in tactics from migrants in Calais to public attention.

For decades, tens of thousands of migrants have clustered on France's northern coast, awaiting their moment to break into a truck and make the short ferry ride or train trip through the Channel tunnel to Britain.

But migrants and local charities say that security controls at transport infrastructure has made stowing away increasingly difficult, forcing migrants to look at alternative methods.

A new smuggling network for Iranian asylum seekers is also thought to be behind the attempted crossings.

"According to the migrants, they sail the boats themselves," Vincent Kasprzyk, a senior border police officer near Calais, told AFP.

"Smugglers help them with the boats and tell them to head towards the red beacon at Dover," he added, referring to the British port which is clearly visible when the weather is good.

Last week, the French government announced an "action plan" to put an end to the attempted crossings, which will include more regular police patrols of the port and beaches used to launch dinghies.

Money has been earmarked for video surveillance, extra lighting and even alarms for the boats in Boulogne-sur-Mer, with part of the budget paid by Britain.

Police have also been working with local boatyards and shops, asking owners to report any suspicious attempts to buy equipment or vessels.

Out at sea, the number of French patrol boats has been doubled in the 21 miles (33 kilometres) of sea that separate France and Britain at its narrowest point around Dover and Calais.

Up to four are now deployed each evening in calm weather.

"We are going to put in place a series of measures to make it as difficult as possible to steal boats and to stop these crossings," Jean-Philippe Venin, a senior regional security official, told AFP.

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