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Sharp uptick in Iranian migrants attempting Channel crossing by boat

Last year saw a spike in the number of migrants, many of them Iranians, trying to cross the English Channel to reach Britain by boat. The re-imposed sanctions by the United States have hurt the Iranian economy and made life hard for ordinary Iranians, causing some to flee.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
A French gendarme patrols the beach in Wissant, France, about 13 miles west of Calais on Jan. 11, 2019.

Mohamed's first attempt to reach Britain's southern shores in December foundered because the outboard engine was not powerful enough to propel the boat carrying him and half a dozen other Iranian migrants through the choppy English Channel.

Last year saw a sharp increase in the number of migrants trying to cross the narrow waterway separating mainland Europe and Britain by boat.

Most of them were Iranians. Now, French police patrol the sandy beaches near the northern port of Calais every night, searching for migrants gathering to take to the sea.

"Everyone can succeed. The police only get us if our engine breaks," Mohamed told Reuters, declining to reveal his full name.

The Iranian Kurd left his wife and children in Tehran over two years ago in search of a more prosperous life in Britain, turning his back on his homeland even before renewed US sanctions began squeezing Iran's economy. He plans to ask to bring his family over once he reaches Britain.

"I'll try again when I am ready," he said, adding that he was hunting for a new boat.

Calais has long served as a launch pad for migrants targeting Britain, which lies just 21 miles away at the closest point - but across one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

A sprawling migrant camp razed by the French government in late 2016 housed thousands of mostly African and Afghani migrants who would try to enter Britain hidden in trucks, trains and ferries.

Mohamed is part of a new trend: Iranians crossing by small boats, often rigid inflatables bought online, and sometimes stolen fishing boats. In 2018, 276 people reached Britain, of which the overwhelming majority were Iranians, France's interior ministry said in early January.

Charity workers estimate that some 200 Iranians of different social and economic class are waiting to attempt a crossing.

"Since September we've been seeing Iranians, who we didn't see before, and they're crossing by boats. They are the only ones ready to risk it. It's probably because of the sanctions," said Maya Konforti, an official at the local Auberge des Migrants charity, referring to economic sanctions re-imposed on Iran by the United States.

Their decision to attempt the crossing comes despite Britain remaining on course to leave the European Union, a move fueled in part by anti-immigration sentiment.

Many of Mohamed's comrades have money. Migrants said that a small group could club together and buy a dinghy and outboard engine for about 5,000 euros ($5,703.00) on websites like Le Bon Coin, a local version of EBay.

That price, they said, compared with the roughly 10,000 euros per head price tag demanded by traffickers who prefer to send migrants across by truck and who guarantee success – even if it entails numerous attempts.

"Maybe the Europeans are scared of dying, but we know we'll die one day so perhaps it will be here," Mohamed said.

Risks of another graveyard

President Trump's decision to pull the United States out of an international nuclear deal with Tehran and re-impose sanctions has hurt Iran's economy, in particular its oil industry. Its rial currency has fluctuated wildly, making it difficult for people to make ends meet.

Truck drivers, farmers, workers, merchants and teachers have led sporadic protests in Iran, resulting in violent confrontations with security forces.

The Iranian migrants in Calais are a mixed demographic. One young man showed a photo of himself in a sharp suit at his brother's wedding. Another took out a picture of himself in full army uniform before he fled the country.

The number of Iranians in and around Calais began swelling in late 2017, after Serbia scrapped a visa requirement for Iranian citizens in August that year, opening up an easier route to the European Union.

Belgrade scrapped the move 14 months later after 1,100 sought asylum in the country. Others moved on.

Despite Britain's decision to leave the EU, the country fulfills the migrants' criteria of an Anglophone destination deemed more welcoming than mainland Europe, where they consider themselves unwanted and mistreated.

"The danger is not at sea, it is here. At sea it's over in two minutes, but here everyday it's finished," said a second Iranian migrant in his late twenties, bemoaning the French police's heavy-handed tactics.

French authorities say they take a tough approach to discourage people from returning to the northern coast.

So far, no migrants have perished crossing the Channel by boat. But local residents fear that may change if the flow of clandestine crossings is not stemmed.

"I don't want the Channel to become a second tomb like the Mediterranean because of the poor management of these people, which forces them to take unnecessary risks," said Damien Careme, mayor of Grande-Synthe, a town some 25 miles west of Calais where 200 migrants are housed in a gymnasium.

This story was reported by Reuters.

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