Belgian and French police joined forces in the night of Wednesday to Thursday in an action aimed at tracking down human traffickers who sent their victims by sea to the United Kingdom.
Some 500 vehicles were stopped and searched, and eight migrants discovered.
However the action was principally designed to search for small boats – the sort of rubber dinghies provided by the traffickers to cross to England. Often the boats are not sea-worthy, the life-jackets provided are inadequate and, above all, the migrants have no experience of rowing across one of the busiest sea-lanes in the world.
The numbers of those lost at sea will never fully be known, but the dinghies that wash up on the shores of Kent give a silent indication.
And for this meagre and life-threatening provision, the traffickers ask the equivalent of thousands of dollars from their victims.
Of the ones who are found and caught, the number since 2019 has quadrupled, according to official figures, and now stands at a monthly average of 751 people.
Belgian and French experiences are related, but very different. The French ports have long been a preferred jumping-off point for migrants, since the crossing to England is only 35km, compared to 70km from Belgium.
But the French authorities have cracked down so hard that the traffickers now prefer to dispatch their victims from Belgian shores, despite the increased danger. The fate of the migrants, to them, is of only secondary importance.
Last night’s operation involved French police, Belgian federal and local police, the Office for Foreigners and the Belgian justice system. More than 500 vehicles were searched, targetting the boats which – apart from the migrants themselves – give police a good indication of forthcoming trafficking.
“We check vehicles in which boats may be hidden, and also refrigerated trucks. We also track down transmigrants who would make the journey from France to Belgium and vice versa,” said Didier Vandecasteele of the Coordination and Support Directorate (CSD) for West Flanders.
The operation also involved a helicopter, sniffer dogs, the shipping police, traffic police and the intervention squad of West Flanders. Local police zones set up checkpoints, while the French police services monitored their own territory. The prosecutor’s office of West Flanders and the federal prosecutor’s office were present to follow up the action on the ground.
“We are looking for the networks that are behind the transmigrants, the people smugglers,” said justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open VLD. “It is a tough battle, but if the police can identify networks, then the public prosecutor can tackle them.”