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Migrants use empty bottles and paddling pools in desperate efforts to cross Channel

Steve Bird
Four men, some using shovels as paddles, use a small dinghy to cross the English Channel on August 7, 2020 - GETTY IMAGES
Four men, some using shovels as paddles, use a small dinghy to cross the English Channel on August 7, 2020 - GETTY IMAGES

As ambitious English Channel crossings go, the man found floating  with empty lemonade bottles strapped to his body on Saturday in the world’s busiest shipping lane ranked one of the most audacious of all.

Picked up four miles from the French coast, the migrant was a stark reminder of how desperate people in northern France have become to try to reach Britain. 

He had been attempting to swim the 21 miles from Calais to England’s South Coast using the plastic bottles as a buoyancy aid, a makeshift measure verging on madness meant to stop him drowning. But, unlike the 4,000 migrants who have made that crossing this year, he was returned to France where, no doubt, he will try once again. 

Mild weather and a calm sea have encouraged record numbers of migrants to try to make that trip to southern England in recent days.

It is believed some people smuggling gangs have used Brexit to instill a sense of panic among them by claiming passage to the UK could become more difficult after Britain leaves the European Union.

On Saturday, Border Force officials intercepted yet more dinghies approaching the English coastline.

The now familiar footage of small children, pregnant women and young men wrapped in blankets being led to safety was filmed in Dover. Some were said to be suffering sunburn, heat stroke and dehydration.

Officials even helped a migrant who appeared to be in his wheelchair to come ashore. On a beach near the Kent village of Kingsdown, a heavily pregnant woman was seen coming ashore before slumping down next to other exhausted migrants who had discarded their life vests. Two other groups were seen landing at Folkestone and Deal.

Across the Channel, in another perilous bid, a group had tried to use a children’s paddling pool as a boat. Some had used shovels as oars.

It remained to be seen on Saturday night whether those who managed to reach England exceeded Thursday’s record of at least 235 migrants landing here in 17 boats.

The French have rubbished as “fantasy” claims by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, that they are reluctant to stop migrants crossing the English Channel - Charlotte Graham
The French have rubbished as “fantasy” claims by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, that they are reluctant to stop migrants crossing the English Channel - Charlotte Graham

The French have rubbished as “fantasy” claims by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, that they are reluctant to stop migrants crossing the English Channel.

They instead pointed to daily operations by their Navy, gendarmerie and other coastal units which yesterday saw 34 African and Iranian nationals towed back to Calais in inflatable boats and other makeshift crafts.

Official French figures show a successful interception rate by the French of almost 50 per cent since the start of this year, despite a surge in the number of asylum-seekers trying to get to Britain. 

Referring to Ms Patel’s repeated pleas for the French to do more to stop the migrant exodus from northern France, a senior French government official told The Telegraph: “These are fantasy claims. 

“The simple fact is that a huge amount of work is successfully being put into stopping these crossings.

“Patrolling an exceptionally busy stretch of sea is very difficult – those involved in operations in both France and Britain will attest to that, but there has been a lot of progress.”

The official also expressed his annoyance at Ms Patel’s claims the situation had become so dire that the Royal Navy needed to be brought in to tackle the problem. 

Jack Straw, the former Labour Home Secretary, warned how using a controversial “push back” method of forcing boats back to France could have deadly consequences. 

“I don’t think that just trying to push these people back is going to work and it will only take one of these dinghies to capsize and everybody to drown, which is perfectly feasible, for their to be a hullabaloo, including in the Conservative Party, and for the policy to have to be reversed, so I wouldn’t go down that route,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

“The crucial point here is the obvious one – it requires the co-operation of the French.”

Loan Torondel, a humanitarian worker in France, said simply intercepting the boats was “irresponsibly” dangerous for those aboard.

“The UK has been asking for a long time that we don’t just rescue but intercept the boats, which is very dangerous,” he said.

“You have to understand that these boats are still very small and precarious embarcations. So, intercepting them is taking the risk of capsizing them and having people thrown overboard. I don’t understand why the UK would ask that, it’s irresponsible.”

He claimed policing the northern France beaches does not to stop the crossings, but makes migrants take more desperate measures to get to the UK

"People will take smaller boats. What I fear most is a collision with a cargo ship,” he added. 

Bertrand Lefebvre, owner of Le Côte d'Argent, a restaurant facing Calais harbour, said: “I've talked about the migrant issues with some British clients, and for me the problem is that British people are a bit too conservative in their ways. 

“They refuse identity cards and identity checks, which I think is why people are so eager to go there. They still live like it's Napoleonic times, thinking living on an island will prevent them from being invaded – by migrants or by Covid-19."

It has emerged that those stopped by the French on Friday included four migrants in a kayak, while on Thursday, 19 people were intercepted on boats that had set off from beaches around Calais and Dunkirk.

Some of those boats were crammed with up to 40 people, including families who had paid large amounts of money to people smugglers.