U.K. declares uptick in migrants crossing English Channel from France a 'major incident'

Britain’s interior ministry said there was “concern that it was only a matter of time before people lose their lives.”
Image: Migrants attempt to reach Britain
Migrants aboard a rubber dinghy are pictured after being intercepted by French authorities, off the port of Calais, northern France, on Christmas Day.Marine Nationale / AP

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By Saphora Smith

LONDON — Britain's interior ministry has said it is treating an uptick in the number of migrants attempting to cross the English Channel from France as a "major incident."

More than 200 migrants have attempted the 21-mile journey across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes since the start of November, according to British media reports, with many landing in Britain over the Christmas holiday period.

Britain’s interior ministry — which is known as the Home Office — said there was “concern that it was only a matter of time before people lose their lives.”

Home Secretary Sajid Javid has requested an urgent call with his French counterpart to discuss the situation, “insisted that the Home Office treat the situation as a major incident and has … asked for daily updates,” the government department said in a statement.

Javid is also looking into whether deploying more vessels in the channel would act as a deterrent or would encourage more people to try and make the crossing, the Home Office said.

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People attempting to reach Britain illegally from France have traditionally hidden themselves in or under trucks traveling by ferry or train through the Channel tunnel. But tighter security checks mean that some migrants now see the waterway as an option.

Britain's Home Secretary Sajid Javid leaves after a meeting at the prime minister's residence in London, Britain.FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA / EPA

Migrants are now attempting the journey to Britain aboard flimsy inflatable boats, canoes and even water scooters. In one incident last month, a group of 17 migrants stole a fishing boat from a French port and sailed across the English Channel.

During a visit to meet Britain's border control forces on England's south coast Saturday, Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes said Javid was cutting short a family vacation to deal with the situation.

In an earlier statement, Nokes said the number of crossings in recent days was "deeply concerning" and that some were facilitated by organized crime while others appeared to be "opportunistic."

“Attempting to cross the Channel in this way is extremely dangerous and they are putting their lives at risk,” she said.

Some migrants told NBC News' British partner ITV News last month that they knew of other people who had arrived in the U.K. by swimming and then catching hold of passing ferries.

"I saw a lot of people who broke a hand or an elbow or they were ill after they got cold," one said.

British lawmaker Charlie Elphicke, who represents a parliamentary constituency on England’s south coast, has called for more boats to patrol the stretch of water and for the French to "step up action."

"The British and French authorities must get a grip and find and stop the traffickers behind these crossings before there is a tragedy in the English Channel," the politician, who is a member of the ruling Conservative Party,posted on Facebook earlier this week.

The growing expressions of concern come amid the country's divisive Brexit debate, in which immigration has played a prominent role.

Lawmakers are set to vote next month on the divorce deal Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the European Union, which would mark the end of freedom of movement between the 28-member bloc and Britain.

On Thursday the interior ministry unveiled its scheme which would allow E.U. nationals to remain in the U.K. after Brexit.