With the United Kingdom poised to leave the European Union on January 31, the number of boat arrivals on the British coastline has dramatically risen in recent months.
The general secretary of the UK's Immigration Service Union, Lucy Moreton, told the BBC that the numbers had increased significantly especially over the recent weeks - ever since Britain's departure date from the EU on January 31 was reconfirmed following the reelection of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in December.
Moreton told the British national broadcaster that the number of arrivals had "increased massively in the last couple of weeks. We do normally see an increase in clandestine migration over Christmas – that's been a pattern for decades. But this is the first time that we've seen this quite so dramatically in small boats."
The UK's Independent
newspaper reported that an estimated 1,800 migrants had made the sea crossing over the English Channel in 2019 -- which stands at more than six times the figure in the previous year. Local authorities in northern France meanwhile told the AFP
news agency that the number of migrants who had been rescued while attempting to cross the English Channel in 2019 stood at over 2,358 -- four times the number for 2018.
In total, 261 cases of crossings or attempted crossings were recorded by French and British authorities, with most taking place in small inflatable boats, which often would be overloaded, the Maritime Prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea told AFP
More attempts expected before Brexit
Moreton explained that human traffickers were likely going to use Brexit to animate more migrants to attempt such irregular sea crossings in the coming weeks. She told the Today program on BBC Radio 4 that she had ascertained information "that people smugglers and traffickers are telling these folk that after Brexit Britain will close in some way."
"In practice, of course, this is illegal anyway, and it will be as illegal on 31 January as it is on 1 February. Brexit doesn't make a difference, but we do know that the criminals are using this to try to drive more business," Moreton said.
Migrants 'threaten to take their lives' when intercepted
Irregular arrivals in the UK had already been declared a "major incident" by the former home secretary Sajid Javid in 2018, as numbers first started surging. This led to the UK beefing up security along the French coast in a bid to curb further irregular migration.
French authorities have since then picked up more migrants trying to cross the Channel than before but with the overall numbers of attempted crossings also increasing, more and more migrants did still manage to reach British shores.
Moreton also highlighted the fact that while the French patrols were largely in charge of intercepting migrants and taking them back to France, the UK's Border Force boats deployed in the Channel are chiefly tasked with preventing the loss of lives and do not serve the role of deterring would-be migrants. A spokesman for the UK Home Office said a Border Force cutter and two coastal patrol vessels were patrolling the Channel in this capacity.
"Once the vessels are in the water, it's quite common for the migrants on it to threaten their own lives if they're approached – particularly by a French vessel," she said. "If they're approached by a British vessel, they're quite happy. Their aim is to get to the UK, and the Border Force vessels aren't there to deter them from setting sail, they are there to ensure that they reach the other side alive."
Sea crossings becoming preferred route
Moreton added that sea crossing were becoming more promising to migrants, as it now takes fewer failed attempts to eventually succeed in crossing the English Channel than, for example, "trying to conceal yourself in a lorry or the back of a vehicle."
"But as it becomes more and more successful it's more reported in the media, we're now starting to see people that we think are trying to do this on their own. There's the gentleman in flippers, two in a kayak, that type of thing," Moreton explained. "But it is also much, much more risky."
According to AFP, at least four migrants died in 2019 while attempting to make the crossing in the Channel, which is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Many arrivals already have pending asylum cases in EU
Moreton also said that those arriving by small boat had often been coached by people smugglers to tell made-up stories to UK authorities upon arrival to enhance their chances of successfully claiming asylum.
However, nearly half of the migrants intercepted in the Channel were found to already have asylum claims pending in other EU countries, as these can be traced using fingerprints.
A Home Office spokesman told AFP that migrants who reach the UK illegally "should be in no doubt about our determination to return them to Europe as it is an established principle that those in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach."