• Provisional data from the UK Home Office has shown that a record 4644 people crossed the Channel in small boats in the first three months of 2024.
  • The UK government has launched a new social media campaign in Vietnam as part of its efforts to reduce the number of people crossing the Channel in small boats.
  • A recent investigation shows the UK-funded French police carrying out life-threatening manoeuvres and pullbacks against migrant boats.

New statistics published by the UK Home Office have revealed that the number of people who arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel in small boats has reached a record for the first three months of a calendar year. Following the 2024 daily record of 514 arrivals on 20 March, 338 people arrived on 26 March bringing the total number since the start of the year to 4644. According to the PA news agency’s analysis of the provisional data, the number of arrivals in January-March 2024 is 23% higher than in the same period in 2023 (3770) and 12% higher than in 2022 (4162). Commenting on the figures, Asli Tatliadim from the NGO Refugee Action said: “People will continue to risk their lives to cross the Channel in flimsy boats because the government refuses to open safe routes for people to reach the UK to seek asylum here”. The risks involved remain all too real. In a less reported comparison with 2023, at least nine people have drowned trying to cross the Channel so far in 2024 (12 in the whole of 2023).

On 25 March, the UK government launched a social media campaign in Vietnam aimed at deterring potential migrants from attempting to enter the UK via irregular means, including Channel crossings. According to a press statement, the new campaign follows “successful social media activity in Albania last year which contributed to a 90% reduction in Albanian small boat arrivals”. Videos included in the campaign will show “real testimonies from those who regret coming to the UK illegally”. Home Secretary James Cleverly said: “Expanding our campaign to Vietnam, another key partner in our work to tackle illegal migration, will help us to save more lives and dent the business model of the criminals who profit from this vile trade”. The opposition Labour party said the government should “end the gimmicks” and “get a grip”.

Video footage has emerged showing the UK-funded French maritime police using violent and dangerous tactics against small boats carrying migrants in the Channel. The footage, which was reportedly recorded in October 2023 and was obtained and released by Lighthouse Reports in collaboration with Le Monde, Der Spiegel and the Observer, shows the Maritime Gendarmerie trying to undertake pullback manoeuvres against small boats in French waters in an effort to prevent them from making the crossing to the UK. The police’s aggressive tactics, shown in two videos, included circling a small boat at speed thus causing waves to flood it, and threatening passengers on a separate boat with a large tank of pepper spray before ramming it. As well as raising difficult questions for the French police regarding some of its officers’ potentially life-threatening tactics, the incident is also awkward for the UK government as the boat used in the Dunkirk Harbour incident was paid for with funding that it provided to France under a 2018 deal. Evidence of a third attempted pullback came from a member of the Coastguard Service of the French Customs who submitted a complaint to the public prosecutor in Boulogne-sur-Mer that, in August 2023, police officers had “ordered a National Society of Sea Rescues (SNSM) crew to puncture a small boat that had already set sail”. On 9 February, a man from India who was a passenger on a small boat submitted a complaint to the French human rights ombudsman that appeared to support the allegation that the French police had used this type of dangerous tactic. “They went round the boat in a circle and then they stabbed the boat and left. We had to swim for about 10 minutes … We nearly died,” he said in his testimony. Commenting on the first video, which was reportedly filmed in Dunkirk Harbour, the former chief immigration officer for the UK Border Force, Kevin Saunders, said: “It would appear that the French are trying to force the boat back because if they didn’t there’s probably better than a 50/50 chance that it would sink,” he said, adding “While this looks not very good, in fact it may actually be an effort to save lives”. However, “two UK Border Force sources” told journalists that the tactic could result in “multiple deaths and injuries”. “If the blades [of the French boat] make contact with the vessel, it will slash right through it” said one unnamed Border Force official. They also warned of the serious risk of a collision between the two boats. “The weight and the force of that vessel could ride straight over the top of the rib. It would knock the passengers out, knock them unconscious and into the water. It could potentially lead to death”. A search and rescue expert who was shown the footage described the action as “a textbook pushback – exactly the same as we see in Greece”. As well as raising difficult questions for the French police regarding some of its officers’ potentially life-threatening tactics, the incident is also awkward for the UK government as the boat used in the Dunkirk Harbour incident was paid for with funding that it provided to France under a 2018 deal. Various NGO representatives and other commentators criticised the incidents. “Impunity must stop there, the situation at the border must change,” wrote Utopia 56 on X while Zoe Gardner described them as “an outrage, even for a situation so outraged-out”. Several MPs and others also called for an official enquiry. “It is high time to shed light on these illegal actions contrary to all the international texts that France has signed and ratified,” Elsa Faucillon MP wrote on X. These calls were echoed by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović. “The practices of the French authorities reported by several media as endangering the lives of migrants in the Channel must be the subject of an effective investigation, including into aspects linked to Franco-British cooperation which could have contributed to it,” she wrote on X.

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