Families risk their lives and migrants pay £10,000 each to get to UK by dinghy before Brexit — as 12,000 Iranians reach Europe visa-free

“It was a sunny day,” the boat skipper recalled. “I thought it was tourists who had drifted out from our coast three miles away, got into trouble and needed a tow to shore.”

But as his 36ft boat Royal Charlotte and its 12 anglers pulled alongside, they realised the exhausted souls inside the dinghy had ventured across the busy English Channel.

In what many believe is a dash to Britain by migrants fearing Brexit will close the border, the four Iranians were passengers in an increasingly flimsy flotilla heading here from camps in Calais.

They had just crossed the world’s busiest shipping lanes, braving the Dover Strait’s deadly tides and remained undetected by authorities.

“Their three-man rubber dinghy was half-full of water,” Matt told me of the September rescue.

“They only had little bottles of water and a bag of fruit. There was no engine and only three oars.

“They pointed to France and said they’d been at sea for two days. A ferry would have swamped them if it had gone close.”

This month alone there have been 123 migrants, in a variety of unseaworthy vessels, who have been found to have made the Channel crossing. Most claim to be Iranian.

In the early hours of Tuesday this week, Matt was again out on the Channel swell, this time in his catamaran Portia. But rather than a party of anglers, its passengers were a TV crew from Good Morning Britain, who recorded extraordinary rescue footage that made headlines in Wednesday’s Sun.

A third-generation fisherman who has been piloting the Channel for 20 years, Matt revealed: “An emergency call came from a ferry about seven miles out of Dover saying they could see a small boat in the water.

“The people on board were flashing a torch on and off, worried the ferry would run them over.

“We saw the flashing light and found nine people in a three or four-man rubber dinghy.

“The water was nearly coming over the back of it.”

Dad-of-one Matt, 38, described the sight of the shouting and waving Iranians as “emotional” and “overwhelming”.

He added: “There were two families, all soaked and cold, with a three-year-old girl in the middle of them.”

To find some of the next people willing to brave the dangerous voyage of at least 21 miles, The Sun headed over to France.

In a patch of fetid scrubland near the site of what was once Calais’s sprawling Jungle refugee camp, I found a disconsolate group of around 60 Iranians desperate to reach Britain.

Dozens of ramshackle tents flap in the driving rain, while a nearby boggy woodland serves as an open-air latrine.

It is where migrants on a 3,500-mile journey from Iran survive on food handouts while waiting for families back home to scrape together the cash for their onward passage.

Iranian Javad, 44, tells me in good English: “Everyone here has a plan to go on a boat to Britain. The smugglers are from Paris and charge anything from £3,000 to £10,000 for a place on a boat. Your family calls the smuggler and pays the fare. No one carries money here or you would be robbed.”

French frontier police sources say the people smugglers are mainly from eastern Europe, especially Albania. Some have asylum in Britain before returning to northern France to make money as smugglers. France has detected 40 illegal attempts to cross the Channel by boat this year, including 28 since October 1. In the whole of 2017 there were 13, with 23 in 2016.

Javad, from Kerman in central Iran, added: “The smugglers are good people. They help us. You never see them. You are told to meet at a GPS location.

“They hire a guide who has a second boat that’s tied by rope to the boat you’re in. When they get out in sea, the rope is cut. The passengers then dial the emergency services for help. People know the dangers of the boats but when you’re in a place like this, you do anything to get out.”

Many of the Iranians have taken advantage of visa-free travel to Serbia to reach Europe then travel on to Calais by lorry. Serbia reinstated visa requirements last month after the EU complained that 12,000 of the 40,000 Iranians who arrived under the scheme never returned to Iran.

Javad says people are fleeing Iran due to “politics and religion”.

“Many were tortured by the Iranian regime after demonstrating against them,” he says. “We want to go to the UK because we understand your culture from our schools.”

Tehran mechanic Ali, 37, says he has been quoted £4,500 for a seat on a dinghy, adding: “I don’t have the money, so I’m stuck in this place with no healthy water or toilets. I haven’t had a shower for ten days.”

Iranian architect Zakari, 37, whose wife lives in Stockport, told me: “My life was in danger in Iran. It’s a dictatorship. I’m desperate to get to Britain.”

Diplomatic sources in Paris told The Sun there has been an increase in the number of alleged refugees from Tehran in recent months.

“They tend to have money and are well educated with good contacts,” said one source. “They work through people smugglers who offer bespoke passages to England, sometimes for as much as 10,000 euros (around £8,900) for the crossing. This is an average annual salary in Iran, but it’s the only way they can get on a boat without raising suspicions in France and risk being reported to the authorities. That would be the price for a family and it would not include the journey from Iran.”

Many believe the sudden surge in crossings is down to Brexit.

One smuggler told an undercover BBC reporter posing as an Iranian migrant at a camp in Dunkirk: “When the UK is out of Europe, the borders will be shut properly. This Jungle will be cleared. They will put everyone in jail.”

Ingrid Parrot, from the French maritime police, said: “We think they want to leave at all costs now because Brexit hasn’t yet happened.

“Our big fear is that we will end up with bodies washing up on the beaches because a boat overturns or because of a collision.

“The migrants are crossing in extremely dangerous conditions. There are strong currents, the weather changes quickly and this is the world’s busiest waterway, with 20 to 25 per cent of global maritime traffic.”

According to the French officials there are around 450 migrants living in Calais, and some 800 around Dunkirk.

Others are congregating in coastal towns further west, such as the Normandy port of Ouistreham.

Authorities wanted to stamp out the crossings, fearful of repeating tragic scenes in the Med, where 2,000 migrants drowned this year.


Retired Kent coast guard officer Andy Roberts MBE, in his sixties, told The Sun: “If a ship hit one of the dinghies it would kill the people on board. Staff on the ship might not even notice.

“The smugglers are on a roll. Their dinghies are making it across. The situation will continue and sadly, there will be deaths.”

The Home Office says the UK-France Coordination & Information Centre in Calais will share intelligence between the two nations around the clock, monitor Channel traffic and prosecute the gangs organising the crossings.

On Tuesday Home Secretary Sajid Javid mooted deploying an extra Border Force cutter in the Channel.

But a Government source explained: “More ships means migrants crossing in dinghies will only have to reach British boats rather than make it all the way across.”

Under maritime law, stricken migrants are taken to the nearest “safe port”.

Not all the inflatables leaving French shores reach the UK. At least 30 migrants have been rescued in French waters since November 23. Pierre-Henri Dumont, from the centre-right Les Republicains party in Calais, said: “The truth is we cannot stop everyone.”

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