A group of Iranian migrants took a 12-metre (40ft) fishing boat from a French port and sailed across the Channel to Britain, slipping past border officials to complete their journey.
Seventeen migrants, including three children, reached England early on Tuesday aboard the fishing boat believed to have been stolen from a port near Calais, British officials confirmed.
French maritime authorities called the crossing “unprecedented”, noting that migrants had previously used much smaller boats to try reach their journey’s end, with little success.
The UK Home Office said the group was intercepted at Dover harbour. “Fourteen men and three minors, all of whom presented themselves as Iranian, were found on board,” a spokesman said, adding that their asylum cases would be reviewed and the children had been referred to social services.
French prosecutor Pascal Marconville, who is leading the investigation into the theft, said the engine had been hotwired and that the migrants managed to “escape the watch” of port authorities.
French officials first became suspicious on Monday evening when they noticed a boat taking a “bizarre” route across the Channel, said Ingrid Parrot, a spokeswoman for maritime authorities in northern France.
Officials tipped off British authorities and contacted the owner of the vessel, who said it had been stolen from the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer, about 21 miles (35km) west of Calais.
Migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia more commonly attempt to reach Britain by stowing away on trucks crossing to England through the French port of Calais. For many the attempt ends in failure, with French police routinely detaining them.
So far this year French maritime officials have launched 23 operations either to rescue migrants at sea or to stop groups about to set sail.
On land, police routinely clear migrant camps around Calais, two years after dismantling the “Jungle” settlement which was home to more than 7,000 people at one point.
Last month, French authorities evicted 1,800 people, most of them Iraqi Kurds, from a makeshift camp near the port of Dunkirk.
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