Report: French police put migrants at risk with aggressive tactics against small boats

French police have risked the lives of migrants trying to cross the English Channel to the U.K. in small boats by using dangerous tactics, including puncturing boats and threatening migrants with pepper spray, several newspapers reported on Sunday.

A joint investigation by the Observer, Lighthouse Reports, Le Monde and Der Spiegel found that the French maritime police, which receives some funding from the U.K. government, has tried physically to force small boats to turn around to stop them from reaching Britain.

Footage, leaked documents and witness testimony obtained by the papers reveal that methods used by the police included puncturing boats so that migrants had to swim back to shore, slamming into a small boat while threatening passengers with pepper spray and circling a boat, leading to waves flooding the dinghy.

The U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to “stop the boats” from crossing the Channel and said he would pay millions of pounds to France for surveillance and border controls to stop people from traveling.

French authorities have previously said they won’t intercept migrant boats going to the U.K. — despite requests from the British government — because it contravened international maritime law.

One search and rescue expert quoted by the Observer said that a maneuver used by police — where a vessel is seen heading quickly towards the dinghy, before turning sharply to create waves — could cause “a mass casualty event.”

“The water is deep enough to drown in,” the expert told the paper. “I’ve seen this in the central Mediterranean many times, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this happening in the Channel.”

Authorities in the north of France confirmed that a police boat had circled a dinghy in a bid to “dissuade passengers” from approaching the open sea, adding: “It’s the only time we’ve been able to intercept a small boat using this maneuver and it was a deterrent. All the migrants were recovered and the smugglers arrested.”