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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Britain mulls cutting Mediterranean migrant mission

Home Secretary says UK may pull back ship to counter rise in migrant boat crossings to UK

The Channel between England and France is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. AFP  
The Channel between England and France is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. AFP  

Britain could recall one of its ships from the Mediterranean to patrol the British coast after a spike in the number of Iranian migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom.

At least 100 migrants have risked their lives trying to reach the UK in tiny boats across the narrow Channel between France and Britain in the last three months amid fears that some could die as the weather worsened.

Most of those intercepted and rescued have said they are Iranians, believed to be among thousands who went to Serbia after the introduction last year of a now-closed visa-free travel scheme between the two countries.

Some 40,000 Iranians were estimated to have flown from Iran until Serbia scrapped the deal – aimed at increasing trade and tourism - under pressure from the EU in October. Serbia is seeking to join the bloc.

Some 12,000 people failed to return to Iran, according to the BBC citing a refugee support centre in Belgrade, with many believed to be heading to western Europe for new lives.

The UK’s Home Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs that he was considering redeploying a cutter working with a humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean to deal with the increased flow of migrants.

“This is a significant increase to what we've seen in the past,” he said. “I'm very concerned about what's happened. These boats must be coming from France.”

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In the last month, migrants have been intercepted in dinghies off the UK coastline, spotted clambering over rocks in the southeast seaside town of Folkestone while 17 were found at the port of Dover in a fishing boat that was thought to have been stolen.

Migrants have long massed along France's northern coast hoping to stow away on trucks heading for Britain.

From 2016, officials began seeing attempts by migrants to use dinghies and inflatable rafts to cross the 20-mile Strait of Dover, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Britain's exit from the EU next March could lead to tighter controls on immigration and may be pushing more migrants to make an attempt by sea instead of trying to stow away on vehicles in Calais.

"We think they want to leave at all costs now because Brexit hasn't yet happened," said Captain Ingrid Parrot, a spokeswoman for the French maritime police based in Cherbourg.

The increase in numbers of boat-based attempts to reach the UK has been blamed on an uptick of activity by organised crime groups in France.

Mr Javid said the agency charged with tackling serious and organised crime in the UK was speaking with its French counterpart about the cases.

“I have thought, and I haven't made a decision on this, do we bring back one of the Border Force cutters we have in the Mediterranean and put it to work in the Channel?" he told the Home Affairs select committee on Tuesday.

Only two of five Britain’s high-speed cutters are patrolling the Channel between the UK and France while another two are in the Mediterranean, according to reports.