Dozens of migrants hoping to reach Britain scrambled aboard a cross-Channel ferry in northern France, sparking a 12-hour manhunt as police combed the ship to find them, officials said Sunday.
Around 100 migrants broke into the dock area of the port of Calais late Saturday, and dozens managed to get onboard the ferry that had just arrived from the English port of Dover.
A total of 63 migrants were detained, many of whom had tried to hide aboard the Danish-operated DFDS ‘Calais Seaways’, regional authorities said.
On Sunday morning, firemen talked down the last group of about a dozen migrants who had climbed high above the deck to a catwalk attached to the ship’s funnel.
Prosecutors at nearby Boulogne said these people were still in custody. Twelve people were due to appear in court. Others were released with a warning because they were minors or for lack of evidence.
The migrants managed to get aboard the ferry by using a maintenance ladder at high tide, senior regional official Jean-Philippe Vennin told AFP.
“Two of the migrants fell into the sea and were quickly rescued by firemen,” he added.
Police offloaded vehicles arriving from Britain on the ferry before making a top-to-bottom search of the ship.
Those detained were taken to Calais police headquarters, Vennin said.
– An ‘orchestrated operation’ –
Cross-Channel ferry traffic was delayed overnight with at least two forced to remain at sea before being allowed into port.
The ‘Calais Seaways’ was itself moved overnight so the harbour could resume operations.
To reach the port area, “the migrants crossed a pedestrian gangway normally used by employees and I am convinced the place had been cased and that last night’s operation was orchestrated by people smugglers,” harbour master Jean-Marc Puissesseau told reporters after the police search ended.
“It’s not normal to have 100 migrants break into a secure area such as a harbour. There must be a failure somewhere,” local mayor Natacha Bouchart said, before blaming police force cutbacks.
“We must reinforce our police forces on the eve of Brexit which people smugglers exploit in a bid to promote their trafficking,” regional president Xavier Bertrand said on Twitter.
Herve Krych, a lawyer for four of the migrants in custody, said his clients were alright overall.
“I’m delighted that this ended with so few injuries and human damage given the exceptional and dangerous circumstances that we saw that night.
For the moment, it was not clear to what extent it had been organised or just a spontaneous action, he added.
Sunday’s incident was unusual by its scale, and this despite introduction of costly security features around the port including barb wire, grill-fencing and additional surveillance cameras.
Despite the best efforts of the authorities migrants, many from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, and smugglers have diversified ways of trying to cross the Channel.
Many still hide in trucks headed to the ports, but more recently others have attempted to cross the Channel aboard small vessels and lifeboats stolen from local harbours or acquired by traffickers.
On Friday, a French court jailed two Iraqis and an Iranian for organising illegal migrant boat trips to Britain.
A 30-year-old Iranian, considered the group leader, received an 18-month sentence, while his two accomplices, aged 39 and 32, were each jailed for a year.
Some 500 people attempted to cross the Channel last year — most of them in November and December, compared with just 13 such known attempts in 2017.
French interior ministry figures showed that 276 people successfully reached British waters.
In December, London dispatched a Royal Navy cutter to help coastguard vessels survey the 21 miles (33 kilometres) of sea that separates France and Britain at its narrowest point.