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Migrant Crossings in the English Channel Set All-Time Record

premar manche
Courtesy Premar Manche

Published Nov 18, 2021 5:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

Cross-channel migration between France and the UK has been a hot-button issue in relations between the two countries for years, but as winter approaches, it appears to be headed for new levels. A record 1,185 maritime migrants crossed the channel in small craft last Thursday, according to the UK Home Office, many using entirely unseaworthy vessels. 

A large French sporting-goods retailer, Decathlon, has halted the sale of canoes at its stores in Calais and Grande-Synthe after learning that migrants were buying them for attempted crossings of the Channel - the busiest shipping lane in the world. Last week, three migrants went missing after they attempted to cross the channel in kayaks, according to the BBC. 

"The purchase of canoes will no longer be possible . . . given the current context," the Decathlon chain told AFP. 

The governments of both the UK and France have blamed each other for the migration crisis. In an interview Monday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told CNews that the UK politicians must "stop taking us for . . . punching bags" for domestic political purposes.

"I will remind my British counterpart that the NGOs which prevent the police and the gendarmerie from working are largely British NGOs with British citizens who are on French soil," claimed Darmanin. "The smugglers, who organize networks and exploit women and children . . . are very often in Great Britain." 

UK Home Minister Priti Patel has pledged to make the crossing "unviable" for migrants and stop "100 percent of migrant crossings," and has proposed a (controversial) new bill that would penalize asylum seekers who arrive illegally and apply for refugee status.

On a practical level, the elevated rates of migrant traffic have required derby-style mass rescues on both sides of the Channel, with multiple response boats chasing multiple rafts in distress. Overnight Monday, the French regional rescue coordination center CROSS Gris-Nez oversaw nine separate search and rescue evolutions involving migrant craft. These multiple events required the services of seven response vessels (including a good samaritan ship) and resulted in about 270 people saved. All were delivered safely back to ports along the French coast and handed over to the border police. 

"This maritime sector is one of the busiest areas in the world," warned CROSS Gris-Nez in a message to potential maritime migrants. "The weather conditions are often difficult there (120 days of wind greater than or equal to force 7 per year). It is therefore a particularly dangerous sector."