News center
Impressive experience in graphic design.

How UK Border Force combats the gangs sending children across the Channel with inner tubes for life jackets

Jan 29, 2024

The number of people crossing the English Channel in flimsy boats to claim asylum has finally begun to slow as police break up global smuggling gangs and UK Border Force patrols gain access to French beaches.

There are still on average around 50 people a day reaching English shores after braving the dangerous journey from northern France.

But though that is far higher than the historical average, it is a fall of more than 20 per cent on last year's figure – allowing Rishi Sunak to claim that his "stop the boats" plan is "starting to work".

In public, the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, have been keen to emphasise the deterrent effect of their proposals to send asylum seekers who arrive in Britain illegally to Rwanda, along with other hardline measures contained in the forthcoming Illegal Migration Bill.

But the Border Force and coastguard officers on the ground in Kent believe that the long, painstaking work of breaking criminal gangs, beefing up their own presence on the ground and building a close relationship with their French counterparts are what have made the most striking difference.

The boats they intercept in the Channel are dangerously overcrowded and barely seaworthy in the first place: one typical example, seven metres long, held more than 60 people despite being made of a thin plastic similar to that used in bouncy castles.

Migrants who had paid around €3,000 (£2,600) for the trip are given life jackets which fall apart when they come into contact with fuel; in some cases, children are equipped with nothing more than the inner tube of a motorbike tyre. The crossing usually takes at least six hours and can be as long as 24 hours before the boat reaches land or is picked up by the British authorities.

Most of the vessels are believed to be made in Turkey, rolled up into the size of a pallet and transported to France in the back of a truck before being re-inflated on the beach and put out to sea. Their engines are typically cheap Chinese models, powerful enough to get into UK waters but not necessarily all the way to dry land.

Once the boats reach France they are buried along the long coastline facing England; Border Force insiders say the smuggling gangs’ main challenge is to get passengers, boat and engine all in the same place without being detected by French officers.

Stopping asylum seekers from ever making it into the Channel is universally seen as the best way to keep them safe and secure Britain's borders. The proportion of would-be migrants who are intercepted before their journey stood at 42 per cent last year but has now risen to 53 per cent – helped by the UK Government's financial help for French border patrols which is set to reach £500,000,000 in the next three years.

British border officials now patrol alongside the French, although they are not empowered to intervene when they come across people attempting to cross illegally. That level of co-operation goes beyond the previously announced deal to station UK personnel inside control rooms along the French coast.

These days most migrants seeking to cross the Channel spend no more than a few hours in northern France, having arrived in the country from Belgium, the Netherlands or Germany – making it harder for the French authorities to track their movements. And when they are intercepted they often respond with violence, threatening to fight back against the patrols if they are stopped from taking to the water.

The high-level politics does make a difference too: Border Force insiders say that the number of Albanians found crossing the Channel illegally has slumped by more than 90 per cent since a deal to return them to their home country was signed, helping ease pressure on the system. But the successes of the last year show how hard-won future gains will have to be.