CALAIS, FRANCE – Children and pregnant women were among at least 27 migrants who died when their small boat sank during an attempt to cross the Channel, a French government official said on Thursday.
Home Secretary Gerald Darmanin also announced the arrest of a fifth suspected smuggler allegedly involved in what has been the deadliest migration tragedy to date on the dangerous seaway.
In their immediate response to the sinking, French authorities initially gave slightly different figures on the death toll, from at least 27 to 31. The figure Darmanin used Thursday morning on RTL radio was 27.
Darmanin said authorities were working to determine the nationality of the victims of Wednesday’s sinking. Two survivors were treated for hypothermia. One is Iraqi, the other Somali, Darmanin said.
“Pregnant women and children have died,” he said, without giving details of their number.
The French prosecutor’s office investigating the sinking said the dead included 17 men, 7 women and two boys and a girl who are believed to be teenagers. Magistrates were investigating potential charges of homicide, unintentional injury, aiding illegal migration and criminal conspiracy, the prosecutor’s office said.
Darmanin had already announced on Wednesday the arrest of four people smugglers suspected of being linked to the sunken boat. He told RTL that a fifth suspected smuggler had been arrested during the night.
The fifth suspect was driving a vehicle registered in Germany, Darmanin said. He said criminal groups in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain are behind human trafficking networks. He called on these countries to cooperate better in the fight against smugglers, saying that they do not always fully respond to requests for information from the French justice.
“Britain and France must work together. We must no longer be the only ones able to fight smugglers,” said the minister.
“Smugglers buy boats, Zodiacs, in Germany with money,” he added. “The smuggler arrested overnight has German plates; he bought his Zodiacs in Germany.”
The minister also criticized the UK government’s migration policies, saying France expels more people living in the country without legal permission than the UK Illegal migration from the northern coasts of France to Britain has long been a problem. A source of tension between the two countries, with the two sides blaming each other even as their police forces work together to try to prevent boats in poor condition from crossing the Channel. The question is often used by politicians on both sides pushing an anti-migration agenda.
“Clearly, immigration is poorly managed in Britain,” Darmanin said.
He also suggested that by hiring people living illegally in the country, UK employers were encouraging illegal migration to English coasts.
“English employers use this work to make the things the English make and consume,” he said. “We say reform your labor market. Tell English employers that we need them to be as patriotic as the Conservative government.”
An ever-increasing number of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere risk the perilous journey aboard small non-navigable boats from France, in the hope of obtaining asylum or to find better opportunities in Great Britain. Crossings have tripled this year compared to 2020.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke out after Wednesday’s tragedy and agreed “it is vital to keep all options on the table to stop these deadly crossings and break the business model of criminal gangs behind them, ”Johnson’s office said.
Macron called for an immediate increase in funding for the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, and an emergency meeting of European ministers, according to his office.
“France will not allow the English Channel to become a cemetery,” Macron said.
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