Migrants suspected of smuggling guns on boats heading for the South Coast sparked a major security alert in the English Channel this weekend.
Amid a record-breaking number of arrivals on Saturday, the French alerted British intelligence agencies to the possibility of firearms on one or more of the vessels which had left northern France.
The French alerted British intelligence agencies to the possibility of firearms on one or more of the vessels which had left northern France. Migrants are seen being brought into Dover last week on August 15
The Kent coastguard helicopter stayed two miles away from migrants’ boats as a safety precaution several times during the day.
Lifeboats along the South Coast were also ordered to stay a distance from inflatables they were trying to rescue.
At 4pm, off Hastings in East Sussex, a lifeboat bringing a migrant vessel to shore was advised by coastguards to drop the tow line and ‘move away’ following suspicions about the occupants.
Earlier in the day, an inflatable acting ‘strangely’ off Dover was also put under emergency surveillance by Border Force when its occupants – a group of men and one woman – hid their faces as a lifeboat approached it.
In a maritime radio conversation on public airwaves about the inflatable, a Dover lifeboat crewman told the coastguard: ‘It’s very odd, I have to say.
‘They are very reluctant to look at us. It’s all heads down in the boat. There’s something funny about this one.’
The crewman said the inflatable was slowly going round in circles after reducing its outboard power. A second radio conversation, again on public airwaves between authorities co-ordinating rescue efforts, said a boat was suspected of dropping a package or bag overboard when it was approached by a Border Force vessel.
The numbers that were stopped at sea, apart from those who reached beaches and ran away, were so high that by 5pm, the Border Force’s migrant processing centre at Dover port was stretched to the limit. Migrants are seen above last month
Film footage given to the Mail shows one migrant inflatable off Folkestone, Kent, just after 10am, with 13 men and a woman in a white hijab on board crouching around a tarpaulin in the vessel.
A sailor who filmed the boat said: ‘I have seen hundreds of migrant vessels in the Channel. I have never seen this before.
‘They were trying to hide something. The mystery tarpaulin was not being used to protect them from seawater as it was at the back of the boat.’ It is not known what happened to the boat or its occupants.
Saturday saw up to 800 migrants arrive on scores of boats, reaping hundreds of thousands of pounds for people-trafficking gangs. The previous daily record – also set this month – was 592.
Some boats reached beaches without being picked up at sea by the lifeboats or Border Force. In chaotic scenes, migrants with children were seen sitting at a bus stop, eating berries from bushes, climbing up cliffs, smiling on promenades, walking along the A20 road out of Dover towards London and heading for the Folkestone railway station along a suburban street.
At Broadstairs in Kent, migrants also slipped past Border Force and lifeboats at sea.
They came in on a large inflatable to a tourist beach near sunbathers, some of them nudists, and ran up the beach towards undergrowth where they are thought to have been caught by police and immigration enforcement officers.
The numbers that were stopped at sea, apart from those who reached beaches and ran away, were so high that by 5pm, the Border Force’s migrant processing centre at Dover port was stretched to the limit.
Border Force vessels were left to queue up at the dockside with migrants on deck in Covid masks as they waited for space.
Migrant boats continued to come across the Channel until 8pm, with traffickers using a day-long window of calm and windless weather.
The firearms warning from French security services followed surveillance of boats on the French beaches before they left.
The National Crime Agency said last night that it did not comment on ‘intelligence’, such as whether firearms were found.