Channel migrant drownings: news and updates live from France and the UK

Credit…Ben Stansall / Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

The day after at least 27 people died trying to cross the Channel when their fragile inflatable boat capsized during the perilous journey, French and English leaders vowed to crack down on migrant crossings even as they offered a scathing response to one of the deadliest. disasters of recent years involving migrants trying to cross the narrow waterway separating the two countries.

French authorities confirmed children and a pregnant woman were among the drowned, as teams worked in the cold and wind to retrieve the bodies and try to identify the dead. Two people, an Iraqi and a Somali, were found and taken to a French hospital, where they were being treated for severe hypothermia.

The tragedy was a stark reminder that five years after authorities dismantled a sprawling migrant camp in Calais, the two countries still struggle to manage the flow of migrants to the region.

France and Great Britain have long accused each other of not doing enough to curb attempts to cross the Channel. After Wednesday’s tragedy, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said more efforts should be made to allow joint patrols along France’s coasts.

And French President Emmanuel Macron has said he expects the British “to cooperate fully and refrain from using this dire situation for political ends.”

The two leaders spoke by phone on Wednesday evening and said in statements afterward that they agreed to step up efforts to prevent migrants from crossing one of the world’s busiest sea routes.

Under an agreement between the two nations, Britain is paying France to crack down on crossings through surveillance and patrols.

Mr Johnson said he was “shocked, dismayed and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea in the English Channel”. But, he added: “I also want to say that this disaster underlines how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way. “

Mr Macron called for an immediate strengthening of border controls and increased repression with other European countries against smugglers.

“France will not let the Channel become a cemetery,” he said in a statement.

The drownings came just days after French and British authorities reached an agreement to do more to stem the number of people taking to sea.

Attempts to reach Britain in small boats have multiplied in recent years as authorities cracked down on the trafficking of asylum seekers inside trucks crossing by ferry or through the Channel Tunnel.

Since the start of the year, there have been 47,000 attempts to cross the Channel in small boats and 7,800 migrants have been rescued from shipwrecks, according to French officials. By Wednesday, seven people had died or were missing so far this year.

Many migrants – who often come from African or Middle Eastern countries like Iraq and Eritrea – see Britain as an ideal destination because English is spoken there, because they are there. already family or compatriots, and because it can be relatively easy to find – books work.

But the recent increase in attempts to cross the Channel by boat reflects a shift in the way migrants travel, not in their numbers, according to migration experts and rights groups, who say that overall , asylum claims in Britain are down this year.

The crossings became another part of the worsening of relations between France and Britain, which also clashed over fishing rights and trade controls after Britain left the European Union. , as well as about a submarine alliance between Australia, Britain and the United States that undermined a previous French agreement.

Credit…Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

On a clear day it is possible to see the White Cliffs of Dover from France. The English coast can seem incredibly close and for years it has attracted migrants who have already crossed Europe and hope to reach Britain where they believe better opportunities await them.

This is the promise that prompted nearly three dozen people, including men, women and children, to embark on what French authorities have described as an “extremely fragile” inflatable boat in strong currents and freezing waters. and restlessness that separate the two nations.

It is one of the busiest sea routes in the world and the short distance belies the dangers inherent in the crossing. The dangers are heightened by the fact that many who attempt the journey are aided by smugglers who pack them into tiny canoes, which are overloaded and unbalanced.

Gérald Darmanin, French Minister of the Interior, said the authorities believed that around 30 people were crammed into a frail ship which he compared to “a swimming pool that you blow up in your garden”.

A report in the French media said the migrant boat was struck by a container ship, although French authorities said the circumstances of the disaster were still under investigation.

Thursday, M. Darmanin told RTL radio says many crossings started the same way.

“Dozens, sometimes hundreds of migrants, storm a beach to leave very quickly, often at high tide, to reach England in makeshift boats,” he said.

On Wednesday afternoon, a fishing vessel alerted maritime authorities that several people had been spotted in the waters off Calais. Ships and helicopters quickly began a search and rescue operation.

Two people, an Iraqi and a Somali, were found and taken to a French hospital, where they were being treated for severe hypothermia. The boat itself was discovered completely deflated, officials said. As of Thursday morning, it was still not known how many people could still be missing.

And the work of identifying the dead was likely to be complicated by the fact that many migrants have all of their identification before making the crossing. The Lille prosecutor’s office in northern France, which is investigating the tragedy, said on Thursday that the dead included 17 men, seven women, two boys and a girl. As of Thursday, we still did not know where all the migrants in the group came from.

Mr Darmanin said authorities suspected the vessel had been bought in Germany by a smuggler whose car had German license plates. This smuggler and four others were arrested and are suspected of having potential links to the disaster, Darmanin said, although the Lille prosecutor’s office said the link was not yet clear.

Seventy to seventy percent of migrants attempting to reach Britain arrive from Germany or the Netherlands and pass through Belgium to France to attempt a quick crossing, Darmanin added.

“People smugglers pick them up and, for a few days, try to get them to the beach,” he said. “It’s an international problem.

Credit…François Lo Presti / Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

France’s Home Secretary on Thursday urged European countries to work together to dismantle human trafficking networks after 27 migrants were killed while attempting to cross the Channel, but he also denounced Britain for its policy towards undocumented migrants on British soil, calling them too lenient.

“Britain and France must work together,” Darmanin said told RTL radio, and he said the smugglers who exploited migrants’ hopes, asking for thousands of euros in return for dangerous passage on fragile ships, were primarily responsible for the situation.

But Mr Darmanin also criticized the “attractiveness” of the UK labor market, which he called too little oversight. “Everyone knows there are over a million undocumented immigrants in Britain, and UK employers use this workforce,” he said.

He said France has expelled many more migrants than Britain, although Britain has both a larger overall population and a larger number of undocumented migrants. “There is mismanagement of immigration in Britain,” he added.

Mr Darmanin also said countries like Belgium and Germany need to work more closely with France to dismantle human trafficking networks. France has arrested more than 1,500 smugglers since January, he said, but their networks operate across borders and require close cooperation between neighboring countries.

Mr Darmanin said, for example, that French authorities suspected that the ship that sank on Wednesday had been bought in Germany by a smuggler whose car had German license plates. This smuggler and four others were arrested in connection with the sinking.

Sixty to 70 percent of migrants trying to reach Britain arrived from Germany or the Netherlands and then passed through Belgium to France to attempt a quick crossing, Darmanin added.

“People smugglers pick them up and, for a few days, try to get them to the beach,” he said. “It’s an international problem.

Mr Darmanin said there were 15 times fewer migrants in the region than 15 years ago, with around 1,000 in Calais and another 1,000 in the Dunkirk and Grande-Synthe region. French authorities distribute around 2,200 meals to migrants every day, he said, and have relocated 12,000 since January.

But another French official, Didier Leschi, director of the French Office for Immigration and Integration, said authorities had recently faced an increase in sea crossings – up to 50 per night on some occasions. .

“There are more passages in the Channel today than there are in the Aegean Sea,” Leschi said in an interview, referring to the sea between Turkey and Greece, than many refugees crossed at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015.

Mr Leschi said he could “not remember such a significant tragedy” as the deaths on Wednesday, but that monitoring the tens of kilometers of coastline from which migrants headed for the English Channel was unrealistic, because it would require “tens of thousands of police officers.”

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