French police watched people smugglers putting to sea with an extra-large dinghy just hours before more than 30 migrants drowned in the Channel.
A group of more than 40 migrants was photographed on Tuesday carrying a 30ft inflatable dinghy on the northern French coast near Wimereux, as French police appeared to look on and do nothing.
The migrants, including at least five children, were spotted going into the water in the early hours of the morning. Yards away was a French police car with at least two officers inside who appeared to do nothing, despite the French government vowing that forces would be in action “night and day” to stop the crossings.
The picture was taken before French patrol vessels found corpses in the water off the port of Calais after a migrant vessel sank. At least 33 people died in the worst single loss of life of migrants crossing the Channel in recent times, including five woman and one young girl.
After the large boat was seen going into the water at Wimereux, Natalie Elphicke, Tory MP for Dover, said the French were “playing us for fools”.
“It’s infuriating to see pictures of the French authorities seemingly standing by and just watching while migrants pile into small boats and launch themselves into the water,” she said.
“The French said they would take action, but you have to wonder if they are just playing us for fools.”
After hearing of the deaths – which may have been from another vessel – Ms Elphicke said: “This is an absolute tragedy. It underlines why saving lives at sea starts by stopping the boats entering the water in the first place.
“As winter is approaching the seas will get rougher, the water colder, the risk of even more lives tragically being lost greater.
“That’s why stopping these dangerous crossings is the humanitarian and right thing to do.”
British officials acknowledge that people smugglers’ violence against the French is currently “off the scale,” with small numbers of French police officers finding it difficult to confront the numbers of migrants.
Dan O’Mahoney, the clandestine Channel threat commander, said that earlier this month a single boat set to sea carrying 88 migrants, who would have paid around 4,000 Euros each.
Bigger boats are not only more profitable – earning the smugglers 350,000 Euros in the case of the 88 migrants – but also more sturdy in face of the more difficult sea and weather conditions of autumn and winter.
“At a 50 per cent interception rate, which is roughly what we are seeing at the moment, criminals are always going to take that chance. Even half of 350,000 euros is a lot of money,” said Mr O’Mahoney.
“This single method of entry [of small boat crossings] has now deepened and intensified and has become so profitable for criminals that it is going to take a phenomenal amount of effort to shift it.”
More than 25,700 migrants have reached the UK so far this year, treble the 8,714 total for the whole of 2020 with numbers accelerating through the year.
November has been the busiest month on record with more than 6,000 having reached the UK, despite colder and rougher weather and sea conditions. The month has seen two of the highest daily totals of 1,185 and 1,131 migrants.
A Border Force source said: “We know the smugglers adapt their tactics depending on the conditions and the enforcement activity. The bigger boats are harder to hide but are more profitable and more suited to the conditions.”
Alp Mehmet, the chairman of Migration Watch UK, said: “Larger boats and greater overload makes turning them back even more precarious. Detaining and returning migrants crossing illegally is the only answer. The French must stop playing games and be made to see sense.”
A spokesman for the French interior ministry said: “More than 100 mobile vehicles are being delivered on the ground for patrols and arrests, with equipment adapted to the specific nature of the terrain.”
Specialist kit will include quad bikes, 4x4s, rigid-hulled boats and “vehicles equipped with sophisticated monitoring and detection equipment.”