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CALAIS, France – Lights across the Channel were visible on Thursday, cheering on Emanuel Malbah, an asylum seeker who has been living for a week in a makeshift camp on the north coast of France, dreaming of making a crossing .

“I don’t think I’m going to die,” he said. “I think I’ll get to England.”

Just a thin waterway separates Mr. Malbah, 16, and other migrants from their goal after long journeys through Europe from homes they fled in the Middle East and Africa. But the narrowness of the passage is deceptive, as was made clear on Wednesday when at least 27 people died in a failed attempt to cross the English Channel aboard a fragile inflatable boat.

Despite the deaths – the disaster was one of the deadliest involving migrants in Europe in recent years – Mr Malbah and others were still waiting on Thursday for the right time to come out of the woods with their own boats and take a break for the beach .

In recent months, the number of migrants leaving for the Channel has skyrocketed as authorities cracked down on other routes to England, including by truck through the Channel Tunnel.

“It’s a new Mediterranean,” said Mr. Malbah, 16, who arrived in Calais a week ago, referring to the scene of the 2015 migration crisis that shook Europe.

Mr. Malbah himself crossed the Mediterranean to Italy after leaving Liberia, West Africa, over a year ago. On Thursday, he was speaking in a wooded area near the coast where dozens of other asylum seekers sought shelter from the rain under blue tarps and tried to warm themselves around a fire.

Driven by the tragedy at sea a day earlier, French and British leaders have vowed to crack down on migrants crossing the canal that separates their two countries, blaming organized smuggling networks and also against each other.

The deaths are a reminder of how little has changed in the five years since French authorities dismantled a sprawling migrant camp in Calais. The two countries continue to struggle to deal with migrants in the region following a policy that migrant rights groups and immigration experts say puts asylum seekers in unnecessary danger.

French officials on Thursday confirmed children and a pregnant woman were among those drowned, as teams worked in the cold and wind to retrieve the bodies and attempt to identify the dead.

Two survivors, an Iraqi and a Somali, were found and taken to a French hospital, where they were being treated for severe hypothermia.

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

French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke by phone on Wednesday and said they had agreed to step up efforts to prevent migrants from crossing one of the world’s busiest sea lanes. Britain is currently giving money to France to help cover the cost of deterring crossings through surveillance and patrols.

Although the two nations have long accused each other of doing too little to curb the crossings, many immigration experts and rights groups say the two sides share the blame: their approach has been to blame the applicants’ plight. asylum as difficult as possible, to discourage them from en route to Europe.

“France is in the position of a subcontractor to Great Britain just like Turkey is to Europe,” said François Héran, migration expert at the Collège de France in Paris. “Why is France allowing British police officers on French soil to help stop immigration? It is because we share the same ideology that these asylum seekers are unwanted. ”

At the start of the European migration crisis in 2015, the Channel was considered an insurmountable barrier, its changing currents and unstable weather making any attempt to cross too dangerous.

Instead, many tried to get on trucks entering the Channel Tunnel. But now police regularly patrol the roads leading to the canal, and 12-foot-high barbed wire fences stretch for miles along several roads leading to the port of Calais. This has significantly reduced the number of migrants hitchhiking on freight trucks.

Pierre Roques, coordinator of Auberge des Migrants, a non-profit group in Calais, said France’s northern coast “has been militarized” in recent years, adding that “the more security there is, the more networks of smugglers develop, because migrants can no longer cross on their own.

Several Sudanese migrants queuing for a food distribution on the outskirts of Calais said police often sweep their makeshift camps, sometimes hitting them with electric batons. A Human Rights Watch report published in October described the tactic of harassing migrants to force them to leave as “forced hardship.”

Migrants play cat and mouse with the authorities.

Mr Malbah, the teenager from Liberia, described a crossing attempt on Tuesday that had to be halted because the inflatable boat’s engine would not start. French police appeared shortly after and slashed the boat, he said.

Didier Leschi, the director of the French Office for Immigration and Integration, attributed the increase in Channel crossings – there are sometimes up to 50 per night, he said – to “a sort of mafia professionalism” of smugglers who encourage migrants to go to the sea, at prices ranging from $ 1,100 to $ 2,800.

To monitor the long coastline from which migrants leave, he said, France would need “tens of thousands of police”.

Migrant rights groups said that aside from the crackdown, authorities had done little to deal with the increase in boat crossings.

Alain Ledaguenel, president of a private organization that carries out rescues at sea from Dunkirk, the city from which the migrants who died on Wednesday most likely left, said that in recent months, his team had carried out three times as many rescues at sea.

“We have been sounding the alarm for two years,” he said. “Since September, it hasn’t stopped.

In a damning report released last month, the National Assembly said the French government’s migration policy had been a failure and had led to violations of migrants’ rights. According to the report, of all the money spent by the French and British in 2020 to care for the migrant population along the French coasts, around 85% was spent on security and only 15% on health and d other aids.

It was proof that the authorities were bending to the policy of making conditions in Calais as harsh as possible to deter others from coming, said Sonia Krimi, co-author of the report and MP for Mr Macron’s party, The Republic on the march. .

“We have been doing this for 30 years, and it is not working,” Ms. Krimi said. “Immigration has existed, exists and will always exist.

But the politically explosive nature of immigration, especially five months before the presidential elections in France, make it difficult to consider new approaches, Ms Krimi said. His report – which recommended improving housing and working conditions for migrants as well as streamlining asylum claims – has been criticized, even by members of his own party.

In Calais, migrants hoping to reach Britain are increasingly desperate.

Sassd Amian, 25, a migrant from South Sudan, said he placed his hopes in the trucks bound for the Channel Tunnel.

A graduate in architecture, Mr Amian said it was his “dream to go to England”, which he described as “a strong country, with a good education and where English is spoken”.

Mr Amian said he fled the war in South Sudan four years ago and endured crossing the Mediterranean to Italy, short of food and water, after stops in Egypt and Libya.

When trucks pass through a roundabout heading for the Channel Tunnel, there is a moment – just seconds – when one can try to squeeze between the axles and find a hiding place, Mr Amian said. Several people have lost their legs and some have died trying, according to migrants.

But, having come this far, Mr. Amian said he was not afraid.

“Death,” he said, “is nothing new in this life. “

Constant Meheut brought back from Calais, and Norimitsu Onishi from Paris. Aurelien Breeden and Léontine Welsh contributed to the report from Paris.


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