An intercepted migrant vessel in the English Channel, on March 16, 2020. Photo: SNSM de Calais et Marine nationale
An intercepted migrant vessel in the English Channel, on March 16, 2020. Photo: SNSM de Calais et Marine nationale

Almost every day, French and British maritime authorities have to come to the rescue of migrants attempting to cross the English Channel, often in far from seaworthy boats and rafts. How are these sea rescues organized? And can British authorities force a migrant boat to turn back to France? Here's what you need to know.

Since the start of this year, attempted Channel crossings by migrants have skyrocketed. According to local authorities in Pas-de-Calais, in northern France, seven people have died so far this year. Four of them lost their lives when their vessel sunk this Tuesday, on October 27.

Dover’s white cliffs on the British coast might seem close and approachable when viewed from the beaches of Calais, France. But the English Channel is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. And the narrow strip of sea – spanning just 50 kilometers between the UK and France – is often plagued by strong currents and difficult weather conditions. At the time of writing, French authorities had intercepted more than 470 boats attempting the Channel crossing in 2020 alone.

So how are rescue operations in the Channel organized? Can the Brits intervene on the French side and vice versa? InfoMigrants asked the French maritime authorities acting in the English Channel and the North Sea. 

1. Who comes to the rescue in the English Channel?

The English Channel is divided into French and British administrative zones. France is responsible for the Southern part of the Channel, the UK for the northern part; a maritime border in the middle of the Channel separates the two countries.

Each country holds sovereignty over its own maritime space, meaning the French are supposed to monitor and intervene on their side of the border, and the Brits on their side. “That’s what it looks like in theory,” Marine Monjardé, spokeswoman for the French maritime authorities acting in the English Channel and the North Sea, explained. “But, if for any reason, the Brits cannot carry out a rescue operation on their side of the border, they can ask the French to intervene in their place. Meaning the French will effectively enter into British waters.”

To be able to carry out the most effective rescue operations possible, France and the UK have also signed a joint action plan. On the French side, these operations are carried out by the Cross fleet, and on the British side, the Dover-based Border Force.

“As such, SAR (Search and Rescue) operations are carried out either by French or British teams, or through joint operations, depending on the two MRCCs (Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centers) zones of responsibility, all the while respecting international maritime law,” Monjardé said.

2. What happens if fishermen, or a merchant ship, spot a migrant boat?

If fishermen or crew on a merchant ship spot a migrant boat, they will alert authorities, which -- depending on the urgency of the situation and where boat is located -- will decide whether Cross or Border Force teams will be dispatched.

Civilians at sea (on sailing boats and the like) are also obliged to help anyone in distress and are required to alert the authorities if they spot a boat in distress. Once they have notified authorities, they are required to wait for further instructions.

3. Can the French allow an intercepted migrant boat to continue its route toward the UK?

In general, no. Monjardé said that all rescue operations are undertaken to relieve people who are in distress at sea, and are not motivated by any kind of politics. “On land, the priority (for a government) might be to fight Channel crossings, but at sea, the priority is simply to save lives,” she said.

Migrant boats and rafts are usually considered to be in distress. The reason for this is that these small vessels can easily capsize amid strong currents, or get hit by a cargo ship. They break down often, and the migrants aboard usually don't have any experience navigating a ship, so they can easily get lost. The boats and rafts are also often "overloaded" with migrants, and passengers on these vessels will often suffer from severe hypothermia.

Because migrant vessels are typically not seaworthy, they are usually intercepted by French authorities before they reach British waters and brought back to France.

“We know full well that the migrants on board largely prefer to be rescued by the Brits and be taken to the UK,” Monjardé says. “But at sea, we don’t do politics. We intervene because the risk of death is imminent.”

But there are exceptions, especially if a rescue operation is deemed to endanger the lives of the people onboard. “If our approach is considered to jeopardize the safety of the passengers, then we will stay nearby,” she says. “To put it simply: We don’t want to make the situation any worse than it already is. But we won’t turn back, and we won’t escort them. We’ll monitor the situation from a distance.”

4. Can the Brits force the return of a migrant vessel to France?

No. The UK has no authority to force a return to France. Once a vessel has been intercepted by the Border Force, the migrants are brought to the UK. “The rule of the ‘nearest safe port’ applies just as much in the Channel as it does anywhere else,” Monjardé explains. “A boat in distress intercepted in British waters will therefore be brought to British shores.”


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