Channel tragedy: After dozens of drownings, England and France step up war of words

Ministers on both sides of the Channel blamed their counterparts on Thursday after dozens of people – including a pregnant woman – drowned in bitterly cold waters off the coast of France when their inflatable boat bound for Britain sunk. This is one of the biggest losses of life in the Channel in recent years.

The dead include 17 men, seven women and three young people who “could be teenagers”, according to the French prosecutor’s office. One of the first rescuers to arrive on the scene, Charles Devos of the National Society for Sea Rescue (SNSM), said he found the body of a pregnant woman.

The majority of the victims were Iraqi citizens, the director of the French port of Calais, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, told CNN. Likewise, Iraqi Kurds appear to be among the victims, the prime minister of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq said on Thursday. Authorities are working to establish their identity, Masrour Barzani posted on Twitter, adding that “our thoughts are with their families”.

French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson both expressed horror at the tragedy, with Macron saying his country would not let the English Channel become a graveyard. The leaders agreed to step up their joint efforts to prevent migrant crossings – which have increased dramatically this year – but also accused each other of not doing enough.

In a phone call Wednesday evening, Macron went further and urged Johnson to stop politicizing the migrant crisis for national political ends, according to a French reading of their conversation.

Johnson said Thursday he had wrote to Macron to set out five measures which he says should be taken as soon as possible to avoid further deaths of people attempting to cross the English Channel in small craft.

In a Twitter thread, Johnson said both sides recognized “the urgency of the situation.” His proposal includes more joint patrols to prevent boats leaving French beaches, better intelligence sharing and immediate work on a bilateral return agreement.

“A deal with France to take back migrants crossing the English Channel on this dangerous route would have an immediate and significant impact,” Johnson said.

“If those who reach this country were quickly turned away, the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be greatly reduced,” Johnson added. “It would be the biggest step we could take together to reduce the attraction to northern France and break the economic model of criminal gangs.”

Fight against smugglers

Earlier on Thursday, the MP for Dover, England, where many migrants arrive from France, told CNN that deaths in the English Channel were “entirely predictable” and framed the problem as a border policing problem whose solution was in France.

“It was a completely predictable tragedy that sooner or later one of these boats would capsize and people would die,” Natalie Elphicke told CNN near the Port of Dover on Thursday.

“People are safe in France, and the best way to keep people safe is to keep them on the ground, not in the hands of smugglers in the middle of the Channel,” she added.

The British politician added that the French “stand where the people get on the boats and they don’t stop them. That’s where the policy needs to change, on the French side.”

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin speaks to the press outside a hospital in Calais, northern France, after at least 27 people died off the coast of the city.

Meanwhile, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has called for more support from European neighbors, telling RTL radio station on Thursday that France cannot be “the only one who can fight against smugglers”.

“We say this to our Belgian friends… We say this to our German friends… And we say this to our English friends, that they must help us to fight against smugglers who are international, who play with borders said Darmanin.

Asked why the UK attracts so many illegal migrants, Darmanin pointed to Britain’s methods of managing migration and its thriving labor market. “There is clearly a mismanagement of immigration in Britain,” he said.

In the coming days, Darmanin will hold meetings to better prevent “arrivals on French soil” from the southern, northern and eastern migration routes, President Macron told reporters on Thursday. By the time these migrants reach the English Channel, it “is already too late”, he said of the deadly crossing.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at a press conference following a meeting with his Croatian counterpart in Zagreb on Thursday.

Macron said France would continue to use drones and reservists in response to the situation – and seek further mobilization of British forces. France and the UK must work together to dismantle smuggling networks, he said.

British Immigration Minister Kevin Foster meanwhile told the BBC on Thursday that his government was also determined to “destroy” the “truly evil business model” of human trafficking.

This included seeking increased penalties for smuggling up to life in prison and improving “safe” immigration routes directly from conflict zones or refugee camps, he said. . Foster added that the UK had started paying France $72 million in installments to deal with the crisis.

A deadly crossing

Five smugglers have been arrested in connection with Wednesday’s deadly sea crossing, Darmanin told RTL on Thursday. He added that one of the smugglers arrested on Wednesday night had “German license plates” and “purchased these boats in Germany”.

Darmanin said the two survivors of the tragedy are Somali and Iraqi nationals who suffered “severe hypothermia” and were transferred to hospital in Calais, northern France.

The narrow waterway between Britain and France is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Refugees and migrants fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty in the poorest or war-torn countries risk the dangerous crossing, often in canoes unfit for travel and at the mercy of smugglers, in the hope of asking asylum or economic opportunities in Britain.

Dozens of dead in the Channel tragedy, after the sinking of an inflatable boat off the coast of France

Darmanin said the migrants’ dinghy had collapsed and when rescuers arrived it was “deflated like an inflatable backyard pool”, according to Reuters.

Despite Wednesday’s tragedy, desperate people continue to make the perilous journey across the English Channel. A group wearing life jackets and blankets were seen crammed aboard a lifeboat arriving in Dover on Thursday morning, the UK’s Press Association reported.

Migrants once sought to be smuggled aboard the trucks that regularly crossed the Channel on ferries or by rail from France. But in recent years, this route has become more expensive, with smugglers charging thousands of euros for each attempt.

So far this year more than 25,700 people have crossed the English Channel to Britain in small boats, according to data compiled by news agency PA Media – three times the total for the whole of 2020. On Wednesday alone, French authorities rescued 106 people. adrift in various boats in the English Channel, and more than 200 people made the crossing.

Earlier this month, French sports retailer Decathlon announced that it stop selling kayaks in some shops in northern France, in a bid to stop people using them to make the dangerous sea crossing to England.

An earlier version of this article misidentified Masrour Barzani. He is the Prime Minister of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq.

CNN’s Mia Alberti, Mick Krever, Nic Robertson, Mohammed Tawfeeq, Meredith Ruleman, Lindsay Isaac and Duarte Mendonca contributed to this report