English Channel migrant drownings: a long-predicted disaster

BF Hurricane (Photo: MarineTraffic.com/John Pegden)

Some 28,000 irregular migrants (IM), mainly of Middle Eastern origin, have crossed the English Channel by small boat from the French coast so far this year, and an unknown number have perished in the attempt.

Most IM boats are met at sea by UK Border Force (BF) patrol vessels, or rescue craft of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), and their occupants transferred ashore to hotel accommodation.

Commentators have long been predicting a mass casualty event in the channel, and these predictions were proved to be accurate on Wednesday, November 24, when at least 27 IMs died off the French coast following the capsize of an inflatable boat.

A major coordinated search and rescue operation was mounted and involved the deployment of patrol vessels and helicopters from the Douane (French customs directorate), BF, and HM Coastguard, as well as RNLI rescue craft. Two survivors were rescued.

Reports indicate that the crime syndicates that organise the IMs’ journeys are drumming up business by spreading the word that UK asylum regulations are shortly to be tightened, and that increasingly large boats are being used.

In response to this surge in IMs, the UK government has tacitly acknowledged the long-term nature of the problem by announcing contingency plans, which include replacement of the BF’s currently inadequate inventory of vessels. This inventory consists of four Damen Stan Patrol 4207 cutters, an ex-Finnish Coast Guard patrol vessel, and six Delta Power former oil rig escape craft, bought second-hand from the oil industry.

This flotilla has recently been augmented by BF Hurricane (pictured), a modern chartered former wind farm service vessel catamaran built by AMC and that can carry a large number of IMs.

Organised migration crime syndicates now supply IMs who pay, often through UK-based intermediaries, to make the short passage across the English Channel, with 15-metre motorised inflatables. They feature raised bows to facilitate launching, beaching, and transit through choppy water. These boats will probably allow the migration racketeers to continue to operate during the winter, and even larger inflatables are reportedly in the pipeline.

Very large inflatables are made in China, and can be supplied via a Chinese website that advertises “high quality refugee boats.” Such craft are known to have been used by IMs crossing from North Africa to mainland Europe for some years.

The political blame game is now in full cry, and a French politician recently referred to “uncountable” numbers of IMs roaming Europe, but there is no solution in sight.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.