People smugglers are increasingly packing migrants on to dangerous DIY plywood boats, i has learnt, as aid workers warn of another looming “disaster” in the Channel.
Migrant smugglers are using boats made of plywood barely a millimetre thick, with “bouncy castle” style pipes and tiny engines that are at risk of collapsing in the middle of the sea, each one risking dozens of people drowning in the Channel.
Humanitarian workers have warned that the inflatable edges of the boats are at risk of bursting because there are no pressure valves and that migrants could be left stranded in the water, clinging desperately to flimsy planks of wood.
These cheap “improvised rafts” are thought to be purpose built by smuggling gangs for crossing the Channel.
The makeshift boats are cheaper than dinghies and can be built to accommodate larger numbers of people, increasing the profit margins for smuggling networks.
Simon Purkiss, a volunteer with Channel Rescue, said that the use of the vessels was becoming more and more common – and that he feared the trend meant another Channel disaster could be looming.
“Before, people were walking into Decathlon in Calais and getting some oars and rowing. Now we’re seeing one little outboard motor. It’s definitely the direction of travel. I would say becoming more common,” he told i.
New images obtained by i show boats with inflatable sides and floors and transums made of MDF or plywood. They were all seized by UK Border Force.
In one video seen by i, a boat can be seen wobbling and rippling on the waves of the Channel, no longer holding its structure.
The first such rafts were spotted in 2021, but there was a huge upsurge in the trend in 2022 and the use of makeshift vessels is continuing to increase. France banned the sale of inflatable boats from Channel ports in 2021. Sports shops in Calais stopped selling kayaks, canoes and inflatable boats in a bid to crack down on the Channel crossings following the ban.
Mr Purkiss told i that when Channel Rescue began its operations in 2020, the boats used by people smugglers “were what you’d actually call a boat.”
“How they’d been paid for, whether they’ve been stolen, I’m not sure, but they were proper boats. Always overcrowded, often underpowered, so I’m not trying to say they were safe,” he said.
“But what we started seeing was purpose built craft. They’re built for no other purpose than crossing the Channel, and they’re much bigger, between nine to 11 metres long and two or three metres across. They’ve got no hull to speak of, more like a plywood floor.
“We’re seeing transoms (the back of the boat) that are made of MDF, which is what you make kitchen units out of. When they get wet, they expand and become much less stable. I guess the idea is that it doesn’t matter, because its a one way crossing: all you have to do is get into British territorial waters.
“The other key element among the ones we’ve been able to examine is that the tubes look very rough and ready, not like a professional finish. They look like bouncy castle tubes: blunt ended, not made for aquadynamics. And they don’t have a pressure relief valves. The tubes are fully pumped up over night, and then you go out. And if you’re crossing from Dunkirk to Dungeness you could be at sea for 12 or 13 hours, getting very hot. All it’s got to do is blow the seam, and suddenly you’re sitting on 1mm of plywood in the middle of the Channel.”
From videos taken by a fisherman of the Channel tragedy on 14 December, which killed four people, Channel Rescue believe the makeshift boat may have folded in half, trapping those on it inside.
“It may be that the tubes stayed inflated but the plywood floor cracked in half and basically formed a pocket of water that people were stuck in.”
Rescuers fear that the trend towards makeshift rafts means another disaster in the Channel is more likely. These are becoming more overloaded, with the number of people per raft increasing from 12 to around 50.
“With the people smugglers, the only thing they’re interested in is how many people you can get on each one. So they’re going to get bigger and they’re going to get flimsier,” he said. “We’ve seen them get bigger. We’ve seen 50 people in these things. Sometimes people are standing up, many without life jackets. We’re just waiting for the next time this goes wrong.”
The Home Secretary Suella Braverman has pledged to cut down on the number of small boats crossing the Channel, unveiling a new Illegal Migration Bill this month. The bill would automatically disqualify anyone arriving in the UK via small boat from claiming asylum in the UK or accessing support for modern slavery victims, something the UN and human rights organisations have described as a clear violation of international law on seeking asylum.
Since she announced the plan, high winds and cold weather are thought to have deterred many Channel crossings, meaning the true picture of whether the new policy is putting people off making the journey is unclear.2023-03-24T13:16:22Z dg43tfdfdgfd