Migrant madness that’s off the radar


Over a crackling maritime radio comes the voice of the captain of the small French warship Aramis as it cruises the English Channel.

In heavily accented but precise English, he instructs P&O’s Pride of Kent ferry to move out of his way so he can shepherd a boat full of migrants floundering off the French coast towards British waters.

In the radio message, heard and recorded by the Mail on Tuesday morning, Aramis’s captain says the dinghy is on his port side and he is escorting the tiny vessel safely on its journey in the Channel.

The Mail heard this French warship order this huge P&O ferry aside as it escorted migrants into our waters

The captain’s instruction was issued an hour after dawn on an extraordinary day in the world’s busiest shipping route when nearly 400 migrants sailed from France and successfully reached the Kent coast.

Between sunrise and early evening it’s believed at least 50 small boats carrying men, women, children, five babes in arms and even a double amputee, reached Dover and the surrounding shorelines. 

The tally, given to us from sources in the Kent area, is far higher than the official count of 32 boats issued by the Home Office.

Disturbing photos taken before dawn have emerged of migrants on a north French beach, near the seaside town of Gravelines, being put into boats by people-smuggling gangs seizing the opportunity of dispatching them to Britain on the last calm day before autumn storms hit the Channel.

Yet whatever the plight of the migrants that day, the French warship’s instruction to the Pride of Kent, ploughing from Dover to Calais, is highly controversial.

In peril: Sixteen Afghan migrants rescued by the Border Force. In their defence, the French maritime authorities say their priority is to preserve human life and safe navigation in the Channel

In peril: Sixteen Afghan migrants rescued by the Border Force. In their defence, the French maritime authorities say their priority is to preserve human life and safe navigation in the Channel

A second radio message picked up by the Mail and made by the same Aramis captain five minutes’ later is equally astonishing.

In it, the captain forbids all vessels in the area from coming within one nautical mile — a little more than one land mile — of his vessel to allow safe passage for the migrant boat he is escorting.

Scores of ships and other craft in the busy Channel that morning were forced to change course for the Aramis and the dinghy.

A global ship-tracking website called MarineTraffic shows the Pride of Kent moving away from its normal route, immediately after the first radio message — and arriving at the Port of Calais a few minutes late as a result.

An officer on the ferry can be heard agreeing to change course ‘to starboard’ before the French captain — in an accent straight out of TV sit-com ’Allo, ’Allo! replies: ‘Thank you for your co-operation.’

The radio messages have emerged just as the French Navy stands accused of indirectly helping people-smuggling gangs operating on the French coast where thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Africa wait to get to Britain.

In their defence, the French maritime authorities say their priority is to preserve human life and safe navigation in the Channel. By law, all mariners have a duty to assist vessels in distress under a 25-year-old international convention on safety at sea.

In heavily accented but precise English, he instructs P&O’s Pride of Kent ferry to move out of his way so he can shepherd a boat full of migrants floundering off the French coast towards British waters

In heavily accented but precise English, he instructs P&O’s Pride of Kent ferry to move out of his way so he can shepherd a boat full of migrants floundering off the French coast towards British waters

The French explain that their Navy assesses the level of distress in each boat and acts in response to it. Many migrant boats, they say, are turned back and never reach Britain.

Not everyone, however, sees it like this. Earlier this year Maddy Allen, of the charity Help Refugees, told the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee there is scant evidence that the French authorities are encouraging migrants to apply for asylum there. It means, she said, that more are pushed towards chancing the boat crossings.

This week Clandestine Channel Threat Commander Dan O’Mahoney, appointed by Home Secretary Priti Patel to combat the arrivals, met French ambassador Catherine Colonna in London to discuss how best their countries can stop migrants leaving French shores in the first place.

And pressure is growing on the French after it emerged its Navy stopped only ten out of the armada of migrant boats leaving its shores on Tuesday. 

The mayhem on the seas off Dover meant that every British rescue vessel in the vicinity was called out to bring in migrant boats, including the fast police launch that Mrs Patel has used when visiting Dover.

The Mail has charted the French Navy’s interventions in the Channel over five months. We have discovered migrant boats routinely being shepherded towards Britain, and even into our waters near the White Cliffs of Dover. 

There they are passed like parcels to our Border Force vessels, British coastguard cutters, and crews of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, to bring into port.

It is impossible to say exactly how many times this has happened because, shockingly, according to a maritime route-checking agency, French Navy vessels in the Channel often turn off tracking devices to hide their ‘operation purposes’ and ‘keep their route information secret’.

They are even suspected, said the agency in an email to the Mail, of using ‘the identities’ of other vessels — which makes vessels such as the Aramis ‘hard to be distinguished’.

Certainly, the Aramis’s route on Tuesday morning as it headed towards Britain could not be found by the agency. It is thought not to have used a tracking device since last year.

In contrast, the Pride of Kent’s forced diversion on Tuesday can clearly be seen on maritime tracking websites, alongside routes of hundreds of other vessels sailing in the area that morning.

Our first evidence that the French Navy is helping migrants get to Britain came on May 20 this year. We have a series of photographs showing a small inflatable with 13 migrants on board being escorted by the French Navy patrol boat Jacques- Oudart Fourmentin to the Channel’s sea border between England and France.

There, in the ‘separation zone’ — a safe stretch of water for vessels waiting to enter or cross the Channel’s shipping lanes — it is met by the UK Border Agency cutter, Speedwell, which at 9.41 am puts out a rope to haul in the migrants’ boat, observed by the nearby Fourmentin. Four minutes later, after observing the rescue, the Fourmentin disappears towards the horizon back to France.

Six days later, the French Navy law enforcement vessel P678, was spotted in the Channel guiding migrants towards English waters. The vessel is photographed soon after dawn, at 5.59 am, in the separation zone and has travelled with the little boat across the two busy shipping lanes to get there.

This particular incident raises the question of why the French Navy risked the migrants’ lives in this way, and why the P678 didn’t take them on board and return them to France instead of escorting them for miles across the dangerously busy Channel.

Perhaps the most revealing insight came very early in morning of June 10, when Abeille Languedoc, a salvage tug chartered by the French Navy to ‘ensure safety in the Channel’, was sighted beside a white and black rigid inflatable boat carrying nine or ten migrants towards the UK.

As we investigated the French Navy’s involvement in the Channel crossings, it became clear their vessels are now close to operating an escort service for migrants. The French, of course, say this is not a mess of their making. A Border Force vessel is seen above

As we investigated the French Navy’s involvement in the Channel crossings, it became clear their vessels are now close to operating an escort service for migrants. The French, of course, say this is not a mess of their making. A Border Force vessel is seen above

We have a later photograph of the tug in British waters, clearly just a few miles off the White Cliffs of Dover, at 5.21 am.

It watches as the migrant inflatable is pulled by its tow rope to the side of a Border Force cutter by two officers wearing anti-Covid masks.

The migrants are taken on board before the cutter heads to Dover, with the inflatable tied to the stern, and the Abeille Languedoc returns to France.

We have discovered that scenes such as this go on with frightening regularity. We have reports of Aramis, which guided the migrants’ rowing a craft towards England this week, conducting a similar operation earlier this month.

It escorted a boat, dangerously overloaded with 16 Afghan migrants, including four women and two children, up to British waters in the separation zone.

There the migrants were left bobbing as the Aramis gave them bottles of water and life jackets.

The migrants, desperately bailing out the boat — one man using an empty milk carton — took the items but still tried to carry on steering towards the British coast.

By the time the Border Force vessel, Hunter, came on the scene winds were gusting as high as 28 knots and waves were lapping over the migrants’ boat which was in danger of sinking.

A fishing boat skipper who witnessed the extraordinary event, which took place over 90 minutes says the soaked and cold occupants could have drowned at any moment.

Yet where was the Aramis? It had turned back for France, just before the Hunter came onto the scene, leaving the migrant boat in dire peril.

This is not the end of the disturbing tale. As we investigated the French Navy’s involvement in the Channel crossings, it became clear their vessels are now close to operating an escort service for migrants.

The French, of course, say this is not a mess of their making. Brainwashed by the people smugglers into believing that Britain is the only place to be, the migrants often refuse to be rescued by the French Navy.

They have threatened to jump into the sea or even throw children overboard to avoid being picked up because they believe it will mean a return to France.

This leaves the French with little option but to shadow the boats across the Channel where, once in British waters, the migrants know that they will be brought in to England.

However, we have spoken to boatmen, fishing skippers, and lifeboat crew on the Kent and East Sussex coast who are increasingly concerned at the numbers of boats arriving with what they say is the active assistance of the French.

They pointed us to one of the most disturbing — and telling —incidents of this year, a year in which more than 6,600 migrants are estimated to have reached the UK by boat.

It happened on Saturday, May 16, and again involved the French Navy’s patrol boat Fourmentin, which is ironically named after an 18th century French privateer who made a living British shipping.

The Fourmentin was spotted shadowing a migrant boat until it was well into British waters, four miles off the East Sussex coast’s Pett Level beach.

There, it made a rendezvous with a RNLI lifeboat, alerted by the French Navy, which towed the migrants to shore where Border Force vans and officers were already waiting to take them for interviews and processing as potential asylum seekers.

Tracking data from the Fourmentin that morning confirms it had travelled from near the French coast before making the handover to the RNLI, and then hot-footing it back to France.

The truth is that the French seem increasingly to ignore criticism that they are actively helping migrants across the Channel.

Ten days ago, in Dover, the Mail was told that six migrants in a small green inflatable with a Suzuki engine had entered British waters with the help of its Navy an hour or two earlier.

Six miles off Kingsdown beach near Dover, a French Navy vessel was spotted by fishermen with binoculars sending over a fast RIB to the migrants with water bottles and lifejackets as they waited for Border Force vessels to come to the rescue.

So what of the warship Aramis and the migrant dinghy that its captain helped on Tuesday? His messages were put out on publicly accessed radio for anyone monitoring the migrant crossings to hear.

We have been told that the migrant boat had no engine and that its six occupants were trying to row the 21 miles to Britain. It is believed to have taken them until nearly five in the afternoon — nine hours on from the moment the Aramis cleared a sea path for the group off Calais — for them to arrive off Kent and the safety of a Border Force cutter.

Though our sources say the Aramis is very likely to have entered British waters on Tuesday we will never know the exact truth. For the route of the warship is untraceable over the many hours it was at sea that day.

And that is probably just how the captain with the ’Allo, ’Allo’! accent wants it to be.

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