Data obtained by The National shows that people smugglers have increased passenger numbers on small boats crossing the English Channel at night to maximise their profits on single journeys.
Coastguard figures show nine boats carrying at least 50 people were intercepted or monitored by British officials in July this year off England’s south-east coast – more than in the whole of 2019 and 2020 combined.
The figures confirm intelligence reports that organised criminal gangs behind the lucrative trade are packing more people on to bigger boats and launching them across a longer section of the north European coastline to avoid patrols and ensure greater profit.
British law enforcement said last year that passengers were charged up to €5,000 ($5,882) for a berth, netting gangs €250,000 on some of the bigger boats. The takings contrast with the relatively small outlay for inflatable dinghies and underpowered engines for the short but treacherous crossings across the Channel that measures 34 kilometres at its narrowest point.
The highest estimated number packed on a single boat was 80 on July 19, showed data that runs from November 2018 to July 2021. It was escorted to a beach by a lifeboat from the south-east coastal town of Dungeness and met by police and border officials.
The vessel was part of what was then the largest number of people trying to cross the waterway on a single day when at least 430 people arrived.
That record was broken this month as the number of people crossing into the UK in 2021 topped 10,000, outstripping the 8,400 who arrived in small boats throughout 2020.
Dozens of people were photographed landing at the beach in Dungeness where some raised their hands in celebration. The passengers included the infirm, women and children, some of whom were too young to walk.
The UK’s Border Force declined to comment on “operational matters”.
Most small boats carried passengers in single digits in the first months of the records. No boat was reported to have ferried more than 50 occupants until August 2019, the figures show.
German rescue charity Sea-Watch told The National said that its rescue vessels discovered boats leaving Libya packed with 400 people.
As in the English Channel, the crossings become increasingly dangerous with more people on board. In the Mediterranean there have been instances of packed boats that foundered before rescue boats could reach them, the charity said. More than 1,100 people have died so far this year attempting to cross from North Africa to Europe.
The dangers of the much shorter crossing from France were highlighted on Thursday when a dinghy started sinking and 40 people on board had to be rescued.