Migrants could die crossing Channel, ex-chief inspector warns

A rigid-hulled inflatable boat
Image caption Officials are investigating whether a boat found on Dymchurch beach is linked to the incident

More resources are needed to stop migrants trying to reach the UK on boats or lives will be lost, a former border force chief inspector has said.

It comes after two British men were charged with immigration offences following the rescue of 20 people from an inflatable boat off Kent on Sunday.

Those rescued included 18 Albanian migrants, two of them children.

Ex-inspector John Vine said there was an "equal chance" of migrants drowning in the Channel as in the Mediterranean.

The UK coastguard said it was called just before midnight on Saturday to an incident off the coastal village of Dymchurch.

Those on board the boat reportedly alerted their families in Calais after their inflatable boat started taking in water.

A Home Office spokesman confirmed a woman and two children were among those on the boat. He said a second vessel - which officials say could be linked to the incident - was discovered on the beach at Dymchurch.

The two Britons, Robert Stilwell, 33, from Dartford, and Mark Stribling, 35, from Farningham, appeared before Medway Magistrates Court in Kent on Monday.

They were charged with conspiring to facilitate the entry of non-EU nationals, and remanded in custody to appear before Maidstone Crown Court on 27 June.

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Media caption'We rescued English Channel migrants'

Since the rescue on Sunday, concerns have been raised that sea tragedies, similar to those seen on the voyage to Turkey, Greece or Italy, could occur in the English Channel.

Mr Vine, who was chief inspector until 2014, said: "We have seen the tragedies that have occurred in the Mediterranean.

"I am not a nautical person but I would have thought crossing the Channel - with all the hazards in terms of cross-Channel traffic as well as the weather and the sea conditions - are going to mean there is an equal chance of people losing their lives unless this is stopped."

'Calculated risk'

Mr Vine told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the threat of migrants coming to the UK on ships "wasn't a major priority" when he raised concerns with the government in the past.

"Clearly if this is now the start of something new, then really that needs to be reassessed and resources need to be put in," he added.

Border Force operates a fleet of five patrol boats, known as "cutters".

One is currently deployed in the Aegean Sea, between Greece and Turkey. There are four stationed in UK waters, with three in operation at any one time, the Home Office said.

In February 2015, Border Force decided to "furlough" two of the five cutters, meaning they would be left in dock with skeleton maintenance staff - saving £3.5m.


Image copyright Jon Wickington

By Simon Jones, BBC correspondent

Many people living along the Kent coast are shocked, but not surprised at what's happened.

The Channel is a huge stretch of water to patrol - and the authorities are often relying on tip-offs to try to catch those responsible.

Some residents are asking how many migrants are managing to get through without being detected.

The fear is that with the recent security clampdown at the Port of Calais and Eurotunnel, more and more migrants will attempt to cross the Channel on small boats, putting their lives at risk.

At the Port of Dover, the boat from which the migrants were rescued is still being painstakingly examined.

It would have been a tight fit to get 20 people on board, crammed into the small craft in the busiest shipping lane in the world.

It comes as Lord West, former head of the Royal Navy, told the Daily Mail it was a "complete mess" that three Border Force vessels had been left to patrol the UK's coastline.

"We are taking a calculated risk with our own territorial waters.

"Already we have seen these illegal immigrants and I don't believe there aren't clever traffickers using the smaller ports to send them and I'm sure terrorists are aware of the route too."

UKIP Leader Nigel Farage said it was "essential that a clear message is sent that no migrant arriving on our shores by boat is allowed leave to remain".

"We have all seen the horrors of the Mediterranean, with thousands crossing and hundreds dying, we cannot allow that to happen off the shores of Kent and Sussex."

However, Damian Collins, MP for Folkestone and Hythe, said it was "too early to say whether this is a new trend".

He told BBC Radio 5 live it was wrong to say the UK's coastline was "undefended", saying the Channel was "probably the most monitored stretch of water in the world".

Immigration Minister James Brokenshire this week said government investment over the last six years has "left us with one of the most secure borders in the world".

Rescuers said a helicopter from nearby Lydd and two lifeboats from Dungeness and Folkestone were sent to the incident, off Dymchurch.

At about 02:00 BST on Sunday, a rigid-hulled inflatable boat, known as a "rhib", with 20 people on board was found.

After being rescued, the group were handed over to the UK Border Force and taken to Dover.

The incident comes after 17 men, thought to be Albanian migrants, were detained when a catamaran arrived at Chichester Marina in West Sussex on Tuesday, along with a 55-year-old British man wanted on suspicion of murder in Spain.

The Briton, who was the subject of a European Arrest Warrant, was detained on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration and the 17 men were held on suspicion of entering the UK illegally.

Also last month, two Iranian men were found floating in a dinghy in the Channel.

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