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Revealed: UK-funded French forces put migrants’ lives at risk with small boat tactics

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Footage shows French police threatening to use pepper spray on migrants at sea – video

French police funded by the British government have put the lives of vulnerable migrants at risk by intercepting small boats in the English Channel, using tactics that search and rescue experts warn could cause a ‘mass casualty event’ .

Shocking new evidence obtained by the ObserverLighthouse reports, The world And The Spiegel reveals for the first time that French maritime police attempted to physically force small boats to turn around – maneuvers known as “pullbacks” – to try to prevent them from reaching British shores.

Newly obtained footage, leaked documents and testimony show that French authorities used aggressive tactics, including running around a migrant boat, causing waves to flood the dinghy; ramming a small boat while threatening passengers with a large canister of pepper spray; and puncturing boats while they are already at sea, forcing migrants to swim back to shore.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to end the passage of migrants across the Channel. Photography: Reuters

French authorities have previously refused UK requests to carry out interceptions at sea, saying they violated international maritime law. But evidence indicates that the use of these tactics has intensified since last summer.

Rishi Sunak has pledged to “stop the boats” crossing the Channel and pledged hundreds of millions of pounds to France to fund more surveillance and border guards to stop people making the journey. Last Wednesday, the government’s Rwanda Security (Asylum and Immigration) Bill suffered several defeats in the House of Lords, delaying the Prime Minister’s plan for flights to Kigali to take off after Easter.

Ministers say the bill will have a deterrent effect on anyone crossing the Channel from northern France into the UK. In the first video obtained and verified for this investigation, a police boat in Dunkirk harbor circles around a boat carrying around 25 people, creating a wake that floods the boat.

The police boat is seen moving at high speed towards the boat, before turning sharply to create waves, going around in circles and returning. Migrants are seen wearing life jackets filled with foam and trying to evacuate the water using their shoes.

Sources have confirmed that the police patrol boat used to carry out the maneuver seen in the video was purchased by French authorities using funding provided by the British government under the “Sandhurst Treaty”, a bilateral security agreement. of borders signed at the Royal Military Academy in 2018. .

“This is a classic pushback – exactly the same as we are seeing in Greece,” said a search and rescue expert who was shown the footage. “This one maneuver alone could cause a mass casualty event. The water is deep enough to drown in. I have seen this many times in the central Mediterranean, but this is the first time I have seen something like this happen in the English Channel.”

Previous evidence has shown how the Greek coast guard forced boats carrying migrants back into Turkish waters in the Aegean Sea, in some cases going around them at high speed to create waves.

Two senior UK Border Force sources have confirmed the tactic could result in many deaths and injuries. “If the blades (of the French boat) come into contact with the ship, they will pass right through it,” said an operational official from the border forces.

“The other thing is a collision. The weight and force of this ship could pass directly over the coast. This would knock passengers unconscious and throw them into the water. This could potentially lead to death. I can’t believe a sailor would tolerate this.

Maritime experts added that they would be “very surprised” if Border Force and HM Coastguard were not aware of these tactics being used, with one adding: “One hundred per cent, someone high-ranking people will certainly be aware of this. »

In a second video, members of the French gendarmerie ride alongside a dinghy in a speedboat about 12 miles off the French coast, threatening to use a large tank of pepper spray against a boat carrying migrants. They then proceed to sink their ship into the boat. “They don’t even know who’s on board – whether there’s someone with asthma who you’re using pepper spray on, or pregnant women,” a Border Force official said. “It could really harm people.”

Proof of a third withdrawal attempt, a complaint filed by a member of the French customs coast guard with the public prosecutor of Boulogne-sur-Mer alleges that, on August 11, 2023, police officers ordered a crew to the National Sea Rescue Society (SNSM) to pierce a small boat which had already set sail. In an email consulted by this investigation, the complainant, Rémi Vandeplanque, specifies that the SNSM crew “clearly refused” to proceed in this way, adding that the risk of drowning if they had done so was “obvious and imminent” .

Testimonies from several sources who boarded small boats bound for the United Kingdom support claims that French police resorted to such tactics. “There were four (French gendarmes) on the boat,” said a man from India. “They went around the boat in a circle, then they stabbed the boat and left. We had to swim for about 10 minutes… We almost died. On February 9, 2024, the man filed a complaint with the French human rights ombudsman. The incident remains under investigation.

Sources within the French Interior Ministry have described the “enormous daily pressure” put by the British government on French maritime police to prevent small boat departures, with one French official describing the pressure as “intense” and ” keep on going “.

Another senior official, in office until the end of 2020, adds: “For the British, we had to take the boats to sea. They sometimes insisted on that.

In September last year, then-Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick declared in the House of Commons that “we clearly need the French to do more for us,” referring to a recent trip to Belgium, where he said authorities “were prepared to intercept small boats leaving its shores in the water.” He added: “It turned out to be decisive. Small boats coming from Belgian waters are now extremely rare, so it is an approach that we encourage the French to follow.

In August 2021, during a visit to the Greek island of Samos, then-Interior Minister Priti Patel went on patrol with the Greek coast guard, known for its use of aggressive pushbacks in the Aegean Sea .

“She came back refreshed,” said a Home Office source familiar with the trip. “They were very aggressive, had a good detection rate and were prompt in the way they dealt with asylum seekers. She liked their stance of ‘protecting the borders’ and working with the military, even though it was recognized that many of these activities would not be legal in the UK.”

Britain has allocated more than £700 million to France to prevent irregular immigration since 2014.

At a summit in March 2023, Sunak announced that Britain would give France £500 million over three years to fund additional border guards and a new detention center, as well as CCTV cameras, drones and night vision binoculars, among other equipment.

This package constitutes, according to several sources from the French Ministry of the Interior, a turning point. “This has truly put the relationship between the two countries on a contractual basis,” a senior official said.

Last month, the UK signed a working agreement with EU border agency Frontex to strengthen intelligence sharing and deploy UK Border Force officers to coordinate the Channel response.

Contacted by this investigation, the prefecture of northern France confirmed that a police boat had gone around a boat and that the aim of the intervention was to “dissuade the passengers” from approaching the open sea, adding: “It is the only time we were able to intercept a small boat thanks to this maneuver and it was a deterrent. All the migrants were recovered and the smugglers arrested.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Unacceptable numbers of people are crossing the Channel and we will do everything necessary to stop these perilous and deadly journeys. We remain committed to building on the successes which saw arrivals fall by more than a third last year.

“Not only have we introduced stricter legislation and agreements with our international partners, but we continue to work closely with our French counterparts, who are working tirelessly to save lives and stop boats. »

Footage shows French police threatening to use pepper spray on migrants at sea – video

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