Migrant boat crossings to UK surge during virus lockdown

London (AFP) –


The number of unaccompanied young migrants crossing the Channel from France to Britain has spiked during the coronavirus outbreak, as travel restrictions force them onto boats rather than trucks.

Kent County Council in southeast England, which includes the major port of Dover, was dealing with "230 to 250" young migrants a year ago, its chief executive, Roger Gough, said.

"But that number has pretty much doubled. It's now nearly 470 and new arrivals are coming in all the time," he told AFP.

Channel crossing attempts have increased since the end of 2018, despite the danger of heavy maritime traffic, strong currents and low water temperatures.

In 2019, 2,758 migrants were rescued by the French and British authorities while trying to cross the strait -- four times more than in 2018, according to French officials.

The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the trend, with the reduced number of trucks going through the Channel Tunnel leading migrants to make the crossing in small boats instead.

"We used to see these young people crossing in trucks. This was the typical route," Gough said.

"Now what we're seeing is these unaccompanied young people are in the boats."

Francois Guennoc, vice-president of the Auberge des Migrants aid group in Calais, said the vast majority of foreign nationals seeking refuge in the region were male, aged 16 to 30.

He said milder weather and calmer seas since the beginning of April may have contributed to the increase in crossing attempts.

"The success rate has increased from around 60 to 80 percent, which also attracts migrants to Calais," he said.

A police source in Calais said stay-at-home restrictions to curb the coronavirus spread could also have contributed.

"With lockdown, beaches were closed and migrants have indirectly taken advantage of the fact that many local people who used to let us know about attempted crossings weren't able to do so," the source added.

- 1,000 since lockdown -

At least 1,000 migrants have arrived in Britain by small boats since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced virus lockdown measures on March 23, according to a count by the domestic Press Association news agency.

At least 145 arrived on May 8, it added. Of those, 17 were unaccompanied minors. Another three arrived the same weekend, said Gough. Most were Iranians, Iraqis and Afghans.

Kent officials face the tough task of dealing with the influx while social distancing measures are in place that have added financial pressures to local budgets.

The county, which used to have only one migrant reception centre, now has three.

In addition to caring for 469 minors, it is also responsible for supporting 932 young migrants between the ages of 18 and 25 who have left the care system.

The Home Office did not respond to a request for the official number of arrivals.

But it said the government "takes the welfare of unaccompanied children very seriously and provides funding to local authorities, including Kent, as a contribution to the cost of supporting unaccompanied children and those who leave care".

The police made 418 arrests for immigration offences last year, and 111 smugglers received prison sentences.

More than 10 smugglers have been convicted and imprisoned since the beginning of the year.

"These ruthless criminal gangs put people's lives in grave danger and we are working closely with all our partners to dismantle this illegal trade and bring people smugglers to justice," the Home Office said.

Britain is working with France to send back more migrants who arrive by boat in an attempt to deter those thinking of making the dangerous journey.

In the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France, police have recorded 230 attempted crossings this year -- 128 of which were intercepted by the French border force, and 102 by their British counterparts.

April was the busiest month, with French officials intercepting 38 attempted crossings. British authorities stopped 41, it added.