France is being forced to block its rivers and waterways to prevent people smugglers using them for “taxi boats” to transport migrants across the Channel.
French border force and police are tethering buoys across rivers in an attempt to block smuggling gangs who have been using the inland waterways to evade the patrols of officers and the intense surveillance operating on the beaches.
The gangs have been transporting empty “taxi boats” down the rivers, waterways and canals to the sea before sailing them along the northern French coast to pick up the migrants at a pre-arranged rendezvous to then take them across the Channel.
The tactic has capitalised on the French refusal to stop the boats once they are at sea because of the risk to life from capsizing. Because the migrants wade into the water to get onto the “taxi boats”, the French have been reluctant to intervene.
Instead, the French have blocked rivers up to 40 miles south of Calais, such as the Authie and Canche, by using a chain of buoys to create a floating barrier near their estuaries where they flow into the English Channel.
The tactic, combined with a surge in beach patrols, is believed to have contributed to a 22 per cent fall in the number of successful Channel crossings by small boats so far this year.
The number of officers deployed on foot or in buggies on the French beaches has more than doubled to about 800 every night following Rishi Sunak’s £478 million three-year deal in March with President Emanuel Macron to stop the crossings.
Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, who has been liaising closely with his counterparts in France, is understood to have lobbied the French to block the rivers and waterways after the people smugglers started using the “taxi boat” tactic last Autumn.
“When we did this in another location it had a significant impact and overall is pushing smugglers south west, which is less easy terrain for them and partly explains the consistently lower numbers,” said a source.
The “taxi boats” arriving by sea have also been deployed to evade the main ploy by the French police when they find boats on the beaches which is to puncture them with knives to prevent them leaving the shore.
The 100-mile long northern France coast is not only heavily patrolled but has also seen surveillance equipment installed in 12 communes and four ports with more to be deployed in 2024.
The French police are also supported by the EU border agency Frontex, which patrols the region with planes and drones equipped with infrared and thermal cameras.
The smugglers know, however, that once the boats are in the sea, the French maintain a policy of not intervening unless a dinghy is in distress and the migrants are believed likely to cooperate.
Intercepting boats at sea
British ministers have been pressing the French to follow Belgium which reduced crossings from its shore by 90 per cent to just 1,000 by adopting a tactic of intercepting boats at sea.
Senior Border Force officials believe that joint UK-French patrols with the power to turn back boats at sea in French waters would make the crossings unviable and smash the people smugglers’ business model.
Officials have, however, welcomed the blockade strategy. A Home Office source said: “The number of migrants crossing illegally is down by 22 per cent compared to last year, despite significant increases elsewhere in Europe.
“Agile deployment of smart barriers and infrastructure such as that introduced lately on canals disrupts the people smugglers, forcing them away from their preferred routes and has contributed to the reduction in boats successfully leaving France.”
Almost 24,000 migrants have crossed the English Channel so far this year in 509 boats. People smugglers have boosted their profits by increasing the size of the boats to carry an average of 50 to 70 migrants. In 2022 there were a record 45,755 compared to 28,526 in 2021 and just 8,410 in 2020.
The 22 per cent fall in crossings this year is also attributed to a 90 per cent decline in the number of Albanian migrants crossing the Channel after the government agreed a fast-track deportation deal with Albania. Ministers believe its Rwanda deportation plans will have a similar impact if they are declared lawful by the supreme court this autumn.