French police face ‘titanic task’ as smugglers up their game

PARIS — There’s only so much French police on the beach can do to stop the stream of migrants heading for the Channel.

“It’s the sheer numbers,” said Nicolas Laroye, a police trade unionist and border control officer in Calais. “Some evenings there are up to 50 boats leaving the coast, so we’ll catch half, but it’s not enough. We can’t put a police officer behind every dune.”

27 people drowned when a vessel capsized in the Channel on Wednesday, prompting calls for overhaul of cross-Channel cooperation to fight clandestine migration routes. Seven women and three children are among the dead, according to a local prosecutor.

“We’re overwhelmed,” said Laroye. “We would need a lot more people if we wanted to be 100 percent efficient.”

Speaking on French radio RTL, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said police faced a “titanic task” when it came to battling trafficking networks, despite having increased police patrols in the Calais region and receiving a €64 million contribution from the U.K.

“We are familiar with the mafia organizations [behind the trafficking] — they use encrypted phones and operate much like terrorist networks,” he said.

In the wake of the tragedy, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to do “everything possible to stop the gangs responsible.”

It appears, however, that French police have been on the back foot for a while now.

Record growth

The phenomenon of small boats has grown in record time since its appearance in 2018. Migrants were looking for new routes to the U.K. after increased police checks and fences were built in the Calais port and Eurostar terminal.

“Initially it was just migrants trying their luck with small boats found locally,” said Laroye, who has been a border police officer for 13 years. “Then people traffickers got involved and we saw a lot of boats stolen along the coast.”

“Nowadays we stop trucks traveling from Germany with several boats inside,” he added.

The numbers of crossings show how the scale has changed. Over 33,000 migrants tried to cross the Channel in 2021, according to the French coastguard, compared to less than 10,000 migrants in 2020.

Overall, close to 26,000 migrants reached the U.K. by small boats this year, according to the British home office.

The smugglers have upped their game.

“It’s not so much that the number of boats has increased,” said Véronique Magnin, a spokesperson for the French maritime authority. “It’s that the people smugglers have become a lot more professional. They put a lot more people in each boat, around up 30 to 40 people per vessel, and set off at sea without being stopped by the police.”

Indeed, the number of departures in small vessels has only increased by 30 percent since 2020.

The people smugglers have become better organized, said Magnin, with several boats often setting off at the same time in operations that are “necessarily coordinated.” The crossings have also continued later into the year, whereas they used to pause during the winter months.

The French police patrols on the beach have grown in response, from less than 200 to 800 deployed officers on average daily, according to Laroye, drawing on more and more inland resources.

You could argue they have been successful. According to the interior minister, over 1,500 traffickers have been arrested since the beginning of the year.

“[The border police units] dismantle a lot of networks — but they know that when they arrest 10 smugglers, then are 10 more that pop up,” said Laroye, adding the migration route is just “too lucrative” for traffickers.

International meeting on Sunday

Five people were arrested in connection with the fatal crossing on Wednesday, including one person who had “a German number plate,” according to Darmanin, and “who had bought dinghies in Germany.”

French officials say people smugglers exploit the free circulation of people among Schengen countries and shortcomings in cross-border police cooperation to evade arrests.

“[The smugglers] are international and play with our borders,” said Darmanin on Thursday. “We tell our Belgian friends, our German friends that we cannot be alone in this fight.”

France is now looking to take the fight upstream, across the European Union and to the EU’s border agency Frontex. Speaking on Wednesday, Macron said he was calling for “an immediate increase of the Frontex deployment on [the EU’s] external borders,” which include the U.K.-France border since Brexit.

A meeting of interior ministers from the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany is expected in Calais on Sunday.

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