Calais: Britain and France were on Thursday looking at new measures to limit migration across the Channel and break people-smuggling networks after at least 27 migrants trying to reach England drowned off the northern French coast.
The disaster is the deadliest accident since the Channel in 2018 became a hub for migrants from the Africa, the Middle East and Asia who have been increasingly using small boats to reach England from France.
President Emmanuel Macron vowed France would not allow the Channel to become a “cemetery” and also spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to agree on stepping up efforts to thwart the traffickers blamed for the surge in crossings.
Prime Minister Jean Castex will hold a crisis meeting on Thursday with ministers to discuss new measures, his office said.
Seventeen men, seven women and three minors died when the inflatable boat lost air and took on water off the northern port of Calais on Wednesday, according to public prosecutors in Lille. A manslaughter probe has been opened.
The disaster also poses a new challenge to cooperation between France and Britain after Brexit. Initial statements from both sides pinning responsibility on the other party to act indicated the tragedy will not be an automatic catalyst for cooperation.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said a total of five suspected traffickers accused of being directly linked to the doomed crossing had been arrested, the fifth man suspected of buying inflatable boats for the crossing.
Darmanin said only two survivors, an Iraqi and Somali, had been found and they were recovering from extreme hypothermia and would eventually be questioned.
Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart said a pregnant woman was also one of the victims.
‘Persuading our partners’
French officials said earlier three helicopters and three boats had searched the area, finding corpses and people unconscious in the water, after a fisherman sounded the alarm.
The boat had set off from the coast at Dunkirk before hitting trouble off Calais to the west, a source close to the investigation said.
Johnson said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea”, following a crisis meeting with senior officials.
But he also said Britain had faced “difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that the situation deserves”.
In telephone talks, Johnson and Macron agreed on the “urgency of stepping up joint efforts to prevent these deadly crossings” and that “it is vital to keep all options on the table” to break the business model of the smuggling gangs, according to Downing Street.
In a terse readout of the talks, the Elysee Palace said Macron told Johnson that France and the UK have a “shared responsibility” and added he “expected the British to cooperate fully and refrain from exploiting a dramatic situation for political ends”.
British media reports said the UK government is keen to revive an idea for joint British-French patrols on the coast of northern France which has in the past been rejected by Paris.
One of the French lifeboat workers, Charles Devos, described seeing “a flat, deflated inflatable boat with the little air that remained helping it float” surrounded by bodies of the drowned.
Pierre Roques of the Auberge des Migrants NGO in Calais said the Channel risked becoming as deadly as the Mediterranean, which has seen a much higher toll from migrant crossings.
“People are dying in the Channel, which is becoming a cemetery. And as England is right opposite, people will continue to cross,” he said.
According to the French authorities, 31,500 people have attempted to leave for Britain since the start of the year and 7,800 people have been rescued at sea, figures which had doubled since August.
In Britain, Johnson’s Conservative government faces intense pressure, including from its own supporters, to reduce the numbers.
Darmanin said France had arrested 1,500 people smugglers since the start of the year.
He said they “operate like mafia organisations”, using encryption to stop police tapping their phone conversations.
Natalie Elphicke, Conservative MP for the Channel port of Dover, called the sinking “an absolute tragedy” which demonstrated the need to stop the crossings at their source.
Charlotte Kwantes of Utopia56, an association that works with migrants in Calais, said “more than 300” migrants had died since 1999 in the area.
“As long as safe passages are not put in place between England and France, or as long as these people cannot be given a legal status in France... there will be deaths at the border,” she told AFP.
According to British authorities, more than 25,000 people have arrived illegally so far this year, already triple the figure recorded in 2020.