‘Good anti-sinking capacity, lifejacket optional’: journey of a ‘refugee boat’ | Immigration and asylum

Against the backdrop of Dunkirk’s busy port with its cranes and smoke, a collapsed, grey rubber dinghy lies on the shore, abandoned and washed in by the tide.

It is one of the many haunting signs of the thousands of desperate people who have attempted to cross the Channel from northern France.

Nearby lies a red lifejacket and a shoe, half-filled with sand. The vessel bears the name MaRe Boote, a German firm based in the small western Rhineland town of Werne, about 400 miles from Calais. According to German police, at least 24 MaRe boats have been used by migrants to make the perilous journey.

In a compound in Dover, where boats seized after being used to carry people from France are stored, there are dozens of dinghies of the same or similar model. According to British and French authorities, smugglers buy them in Germany, ship them to France, then transport them to the beach a few hours before departure.

The Guardian has traced the journey of a number of different types of dinghies used by the people smugglers, most of which are produced thousands of miles from Dover in China, where they are generally ordered by smugglers over the internet to be delivered to the main migration routes to Europe.

An abandoned dinghy on the beach at Dunkirk.
An abandoned dinghy on the beach at Dunkirk. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
abandoned shoe on Plage du Braek, near to Loon-Plage, Dunkirk
Plage du Braek, near to Loon-Plage, Dunkirk, where migrants who drowned in November are said to have set off before their dinghy capsized in the Strait of Dover. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

“Most of the dinghies, about 11 metres long, are designed to carry safely a maximum of 15 people. The smugglers push them into the vastness of the ocean even with 50 people on board,” said Salvatore Vella, chief prosecutor of Agrigento, Sicily, who has led the majority of investigations against smugglers operating in Libya.

“The risk for passengers aboard these rafts is very high,” Vella added. “They are among the main causes of death at sea for asylum seekers, because it is difficult for these boats to reach their destination if they are not rescued. To cut costs, smugglers buy low-quality, inflatable boats, with prices ranging between $500 [£377] and $2,000.”

A MaRe Boote dinghy, of the type found at Dunkirk, can be bought for about £2,000. There is no suggestion that the Mare Boats are substandard for normal use, or that they market their boats to people smugglers.

In the past, crossings were attempted in old fishing boats, barges and wooden and glass fibre boats, which smugglers had bought from Libyan, Turkish, Tunisian and Egyptian fishers.

However, since the peak of the migrant crisis in 2015, the European military missions to combat illegal immigration have begun to destroy these boats, with the aim of preventing them from being reused for people-smuggling.

As a result, across the main sea routes, from the central Mediterranean to Turkey and from the Canaries to the coast of Dover, the inflatable dinghy has become the most-used type of vessel to reach Europe.

Some dinghies, built with poor materials, are prone to deflate after just a few hours of navigation. Gradually, all their air chambers can collapse, even when the boat is stationary in a calm sea. Even the more expensive and better made German-sold models are unsuited to a Channel crossing when overloaded with dozens of people.

An inflatable craft carrying migrant men, women and children crosses the shipping lane in the English Channel off the coast of Dover
An inflatable craft carrying men, women and children crosses the shipping lane in the Channel off the coast of Dover. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty

Although the Channel route may seem more accessible than the Mediterranean, in reality it is one of the most lethal passages. At its narrowest point – about 21 miles across – the Channel is one of the busiest seaways in the world, with a constant traffic of cargo and fishing vessels, passenger ferries, yachts and coastguard boats.

Carrying no lights and no technology to broadcast their own location or monitor the positions of other vessels, the rafts grope in the dark, virtually invisible to other ships. Onboard for emergencies, passengers only have a bike pump in case of deflation, and plastic bottles for bailing out water.

Last month 27 people, most of them Iraqi Kurds, died when their boat sank in darkness in the Channel. The two survivors said the dinghy began to deflate about three-and-a-half hours after they set off from a beach near Dunkirk.

Those onboard tried to keep the dinghy afloat but their pump broke, the survivors said, and the dinghy eventually flipped over. The survivors claim they had reached British waters by this point and rang the UK calling for help – unsuccessfully. Eleven hours later, French fishers spotted bodies in the water.

“Costs for traffickers have dropped significantly with the use of rubber boats,” Vella said. “They can also be navigated by inexperienced men, chosen from among the migrants themselves. Plus, they’re easy to find. They can even be ordered on the web, in Asian markets.”

For many years the Chinese online shopping platform Alibaba.com offered inflatable boats for sale under the tag “refugee boat” or “migrant boat”.

A sales advert offered buyers a “high-quality refugee boat” for $800 to $1,100, for vessels made of plywood, aluminium and PVC that could carry up to 30 passengers and with lifejackets as “optional equipment”.

“The boat has a good anti-sinking capacity. When it is loaded to capacity (even if the boat is fully filled with water), it can still float,” read one of the ads seen by the Guardian.

A screenshot of a ‘migrant boat’ on sale on the internet (Alibaba.com).
A screenshot of a ‘migrant boat’ on sale on the internet (Alibaba.com).

After complaints from the EU, Alibaba.com said it would no longer “tolerate” sellers using its platform for this purpose. Since then, it says, most references to “refugee boats” and “migrant boats” have been removed from its platform.

But a few weeks ago the Guardian found that links that contain “refugee boat”, “high quality refugee boat” and “inflatable migrant boat” were still valid on the e-commerce giant’s English-language website, even though most of the products listed under those pages no longer call themselves as such.

There was at least one advertisement that reads: “GTS800 15 People, Inflatable Migrant Boat, 6.5 metres long, with a 60cm diameter tube”. The supplier is a Qingdao-based company called Goethe.

A sales representative contacted by the Guardian said that 70% to 80% of the company’s sales had been to Europe this year – mostly to Germany and Greece. She said she was aware a Turkish customer had bought a boat for refugees a few years ago, but insisted this was “no longer happening” because of a Turkish government crackdown.

“We manufacture thousands of boats every year, with some 100 different models,” she said. “Inside China, [these] boats are made mainly in the Shandong and Guangdong provinces.”

But when asked about the “migrant boat” advertised on Alibaba.com, she said: “This is only a gimmick. It doesn’t mean very much.” She refused to disclose any details of Goethe’s clients, citing “corporate secret”.

Alibaba has since removed the pages found by the Guardian.

The Hangzhou-based company insists that it “will not tolerate those who seek to profit from this crisis”. “We are constantly engaged in efforts to ensure sellers on our platforms list products in an appropriate manner and in compliance with our policies,” it says in a statement to the Guardian.

A leaked EU-restricted document, written in 2016 by the officers of Operation Sophia, the EU’s mission to crack down on illegal people-smuggling routes across the Mediterranean, confirmed that Libya-based smugglers were buying dinghies made in China and shipping them to north Africa via Malta.

The document cited an interception of about 20 packaged rubber boats “imported from China and transported to Malta and Turkey, in a container destined for Misrata, Libya”.

As there were no legal grounds for holding such shipments, the boats were released.

A group of migrants run on the beach with an inflatable dinghy near Wimereux, France
A group of migrants run on the beach with an inflatable dinghy near Wimereux, France. Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Vella said vessels used to take people to Greece are delivered to Turkey. Those that set off from Libya are sent to Malta or Turkish ports, from where they are shipped as cargo to Libya. The inflatables that cross the Channel are delivered to the heart of Europe, he said.

A report last month from the PAF border police (Police aux Frontières) found that “boats that come from China and are able to carry up to 60 migrants are stocked abroad, mainly in Germany”.

Marvin Reuter, the owner of MaRe Boote, the German firm whose logo has repeatedly appeared on some rubber dinghies attempting to cross the Channel, agreed to speak to the Guardian.

The firm’s website says: “We build exceptional inflatables. High quality, individual, sporty, fast and uncompromisingly good.”

Reuter said he felt “frustrated” after German police informed him that his inflatable boats, which cost about £2,000 each, were used by migrants to attempt the crossing from France to the UK. “I feel horrible about what these bad guys do with my boats,” he said.

Reuter said the customers who bought the inflatables, which are manufactured in China, did so “legally”, and took them away in a car, like everyone else.

Like other dinghy firms in Europe, Reuter said he was not able to determine if customers intended to use the vessels to transport people. “The problem is that customers who bought these vessels may have sold them to the bad guys.”

Some smuggling gangs appear to be continuing to buy direct from China. Olivier Cahn, professor of criminal law at CY Cergy Paris University, said these included a well-organised criminal gang made up of Iraqi Kurds and operating from Calais. The gang was partially dismantled in November, with several arrests, after 27 people drowned.

The smugglers used dinghies ordered in China and shipped to Turkey, Cahn said. The vessels were then transported via the Balkans to Germany, where they were “unbundled” and handed over to teams of smugglers operating in Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Normandy.

Border force officials inspect an inflatable dinghy, discarded on a beach after being used by migrants to cross the English Channel, in Walmer
Border force officials inspect an inflatable dinghy, discarded on a beach after being used by migrants to cross the Channel, in Walmer, Kent. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty

Refugees the Guardian spoke to last month in a freezing camp on the outskirts of Dunkirk said smugglers charged €3,000 (£2,500) per person for the Channel crossing. In 2019, crossings intercepted by law enforcement agencies included an average of 12 individuals per boat; in 2021, this number rose to 27.

As the fees charged by criminal organisations are high, small “self-employed” groups are trying their luck, Cahn said. They expose themselves to the dangers of the sea on board makeshift dinghies, reinforced with sections of PVC attached with marine duct tape, or sheets of plywood fixed with screws.

Several large distribution companies in northern France, such as the sport equipment retailer Decathlon, no longer sell dinghies or canoes, to prevent migrants from attempting to use them to cross to England.

The rubber boats – after a journey of 6,000 miles, passing from the containers of cargo ships to the hubs of international airports, to the warehouses of European shops, from the hands of smugglers who fill them with people – end up on the beaches of northern France and southern England, along with shoes and clothing.

The footwear and garments belong to men, women and children, whose fates, much of the time, remain unknown.

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