There are so many empty migrant boats floating in the Dutch part of the North Sea that the coast guard sounds the alarm. Since July 2021, 155 have been reported, and rescue teams sometimes turn up for nothing. “We have to wait until someone is really in need and we can’t get there in time,” Coast Guard Chief of Operations Edwin van der Pol told NH News.
Symbols of ships and aircraft on and above the North Sea flash on two large screens. The coastguard center on the defense area in Den Helder is the only one and the heart of the larger waters in the Netherlands, with dispatchers from the police, customs, NVWA and the coastguard itself.
“This is a kind of control room that you also have on land. We receive all reports from a very large area. The North Sea alone is one and a half times larger than the Netherlands.”
Edwin van der Pol is head of operations and deputy director of the coast guard. His people were recently made aware of it ferry accident at Terschellingthe rudderless mega freighter Julietta D near IJmuiden, but also a man overboard on the Markermeer.
“People don’t play with people’s lives. Everyone does everything they can to save people and animals. But you see: we do this with a not so big club. storm with messages from north and south. Then it’s very hectic here.”
“There’s someone in it for the same money”
Since last summer, the coast guard has received 155 reports of a new phenomenon, according to figures requested by NH Nieuws: floating inflatable boats, of which it is not always immediately clear whether someone is still in it.
In October, the most reviews were received in one month: 27. Do you remember at the beginning of last month in Egmond aan Zee? Below you can read the communication between the Coast Guard and the skipper of KNRM Egmond that evening. The text continues below
October 6 at 7:17 p.m
KNRM: Do you know of a lost dinghy? It flows about 500 meters
Coast Guard (KW): Nothing known here. What often happens is the migrant boats.
KNRM: It looks like it.
KW: The English fish them up and let them float.
KNRM: I think it is such a boat. I think he washes dishes like that. Shall I go and see?
KW: If you want, do you have crew there?
KNRM: I will go that way with a coastal rescue vehicle because if I go that way with the boat it will already be on its side.
KW: Is it that fast?
KNRM: Yes. Well, let’s take a look at the boat.
KW: Do it because for the same money there is still something in it.
KRNM: We shall see. Do you want to sound the alarm?
KW: I will.
On 6 October in Egmond, a KNRM boat with crew members will go to sea on behalf of the Coast Guard for a possible search and rescue operation. When they first arrived, there appeared to be no one in or near the boat. The persons were already picked up two days earlier, approximately four hundred kilometers southwest of Den Helder.
More and more refugees are trying to find the shortest stretch of the Channel between France and England there to cross. achieved this year a record 40,000 people hit the British coast.
They then board motorized dinghies. A dangerous trip where a very busy shipping route has to be crossed and although dozens of people have died (you can read why people do this in a box below).
The countries’ coast guards are legally obliged to rescue people in emergency situations, in other words on such a rubber boat. They are disembarked and taken to the mainland. According to the Dutch Coast Guard, the empty boats are then left behind due to lack of space – sometimes with engines and equipment.
Due to the wind and the current, they end up in Dutch waters. “We found quite a few at one point. Especially here,” says Van der Pol. On a large map on the wall, he points to a stretch of sea in front of Zeeland.
Owned men, skippers, beachgoers or patrolling aircraft alert the Coast Guard if they see such a boat. “When a boat was found, we started a search and rescue every time at the beginning. It could involve one or more lifeboats, a helicopter or an airplane. If this happens about ten times, you will start to think. deployment is risky and costs money.”
Other people in need
A lifeboat and a helicopter both have about five crew members. And then you also have the people who take care of take-off, communications, the Coast Guard, the police, customs or the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee, who are called and the beach finder who salvages the boat on behalf of the municipality.
But in addition to the financial aspect, there is another risk associated with such a ‘false’ report, says Van der Pol. “When we are busy somewhere, we are not or only available to a limited extent for other people in need. For example, we only have two helicopters and one plane available. So you run a significant risk: We can be late in other places. “
“You also send your rescuers out to sea in the dark or in bad weather conditions. You only want that in a real emergency”
Finally, the safety of his own people. “It is a very large and also dangerous area. And you send your rescuers out to sea in the dark or in bad weather conditions. You only want that in a real emergency.”
It is not recorded how often a search and rescue procedure has been started for empty migrant boats, but according to Van der Pol it is about ‘several times’. The English and the French are now trying, at Holland’s insistence, to salvage the boats or – otherwise – to tag them. For example, the boat in Egmond was numbered.
In practice, these measures alone do not always succeed, or the code is sometimes only visible after a ‘rescue operation’. “We are also looking at other scenarios,” says the Coast Guard’s chief of operations. “Leaking or shooting from the rubber boats, for example.”
Only, he says, can the boat float underwater, get caught in a propeller on a sailing yacht or end up in a cooling water intake that causes a boat to become rudderless. “Then you have the next incident. And that’s apart from the environmental damage.”
The Ministry of Defense (the UK department responsible for monitoring UK migrant boats) responds that it is ‘their job to prevent uncontrolled small boat landings in the UK and to ensure that migrant boats are identified, safely intercepted and that people on board are properly entered into the Ministry of the Interior’s immigration system’.
‘The solution must come’
They state that after a migrant boat has been intercepted and the people disembarked, the empty vehicle will be taken to the coastal town of Dover where possible. They do not go into further operational details. The marking on the boat that washed up in Egmond is not recognized by the ministry in an official letter as their working method.
The solution is not there yet, but it should be there, says Van der Pol. “It’s a very complex story to be solved at the front. Our people will never be responsible for anyone’s death. So we always stay on edge.”
Why do refugees want to come to England?
“There are large networks of migrants in England. It is therefore possible that family members or acquaintances already live there and they can help them on their way”, says professor of citizenship and migration law and MEP Tineke Strik. “There is also the idea that migrants without residence papers in England can relatively easily find work or disappear illegally.”
In addition, they often already speak a word of English and often live in terrible conditions in the French refugee camps. Desperation grows. “They take the risk of danger for granted.”
Strik is shocked by the number of empty migrant boats reported on Dutch seas. “What a terrible idea. Even with those personal items simply given to the waves. It looks like what happens in the Mediterranean, near Italy and Greece. There’s the bottom full of wooden boats and the remains of rubber boats. I ask I wonder too on whether those people are all saved? Or are there also ships whose people have capsized?”
‘Brexit causes sharper conflict’
She believes that the country that is obliged to save the population must also ensure that the boats are salvaged. “To avoid danger.” According to her, such a refugee crisis has been going on for years at Europe’s northern borders.
“France and England are fighting with each other over who will take care of these people. Since Brexit, England has not participated in the distribution of asylum seekers, so the people who arrive there cannot be transferred back to France. The conflict is becoming more acute as a result, and now the Netherlands is also involved. Maybe this boat issue can lead to the Netherlands posing as a mediator. People need to be driven and the sea needs to be safe.”
The reported number of migrant boats has only been tracked separately and per month by the Coast Guard since July 2021. Their addition to the numbers is that it cannot be ruled out that some boats have been counted twice.
There is no record of how often a Search and Rescue (SAR) has been launched for empty migrant boats. The annual report for 2021 shows that 2339 warnings have been received to the Coast Guard Centre. Of these, 385 were fake.
KNRM does not keep track of how often they have been pulled out – on behalf of the Coast Guard – for search and rescue operations, which later turned out to be an empty migrant boat. A spokesman reports that this has been estimated ‘about nine times’.
The transcript of the October 6 Coast Guard-KNRM communication was provided by the Coast Guard and abridged verbatim by the author of this article for readability.
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