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 escalated 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. Before 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.
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.
On Tuesday night, nearly three dozen people, including men, women and children, boarded what French authorities described as an “extremely fragile” inflatable boat in strong currents and freezing waters and turmoil 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”.
An article in 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.
Mr Darmanin told RTL radio on Thursday that many level crossings started in 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 clear how many people could still be missing.
And the job of identifying the dead was likely to be complicated by the fact that many migrants have all of their identification before making the crossing. Mr Darmanin said the dead included women and children. 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. The smuggler and four others had been arrested in connection with the sinking, Darmanin said.
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.