The incident highlights the difficulty in clamping down on the illicit trade and on stopping migrants crossing the English Channel. This is despite a new “action plan” which will involve Britain paying millions to try to secure France’s northern coast with technology including drones. The eight Iranians were spotted at Sangatte beach, to the west of Calais, in the early hours of Friday morning.
“They were arrested by a sea surveillance patrol,” said an investigating source in Boulogne-sur-Mere. “It was at around 2pm on Friday that a boat belonging to them was found.”
The semi-rigid dingy, with a Suzuki outboard motor, had been bought in Belgium by one of those arrested. “Buying a boat is not a crime,” said the source. “They were released after five hours of questioning.”
It is believed the vessel was returned to the group, none of whom have been officially named.
A spokesman for Boulogne prosecutors confirmed the incident, saying there was not enough evidence for a people-smuggling trial.
Christophe Castaner, the French Interior Minister, confirmed that 71 attempted crossings were recorded in 2018, compared to 12 the previous year, with Iranians making up the biggest group of would-be migrants.
More than 80 per cent of attempts came in November and December, leading to UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid agreeing to provide “financial support” for drones, radar and video surveillance to prevent “irregular sea departures”.
Mr Castaner said: “The prospect of Brexit does not alter the need for our two countries to strengthen bilateral co-operation to implement co-ordinated measures to combat irregular immigration. It is in our interests to make every effort to stop new networks that could attract irregular migrants to our coast developing.”
It came as Dover MP Charlie Elphicke called for the RAF to be called in immediately to patrol the Channel.
He said: “The Home Office or MoD working with the French should put up 24/7 surveillance so anyone found unlawfully coming from France can be reported to the French authorities. We need urgent action, as the sea temperatures in the Channel fall dramatically in January.”