CALAIS, France (AP) — Helicopters buzzed above the waves and ships were already scouring the cold waters when French maritime rescue volunteer Charles Devos added his boat in a frantic search for a fragile migrant craft that sank in the English Channel, killing at least 27.
What Devos found was horrible. But not, he admitted sadly later, totally unexpected. With migrants often leaving by the hundreds in flotillas of unseaworthy, overcrowded vessels in the busy shipping lane crisscrossed by huge cargo ships, and often beset by treacherous weather, waves and currents, Devos had long feared that a tragedy ensues.
It happened this week, with the deadliest migration accident to date on the dangerous stretch of sea that separates France and Britain.
“We picked up six floaters. We passed by an inflatable device that was deflated. What little air was left kept it afloat,” Devos told reporters.
“I kinda expected it because I was like, ‘It’s going to end in drama,'” he said.
France and Britain on Thursday appealed for European help, vowed to step up efforts to tackle smuggling rings and also traded blame and barbs following Wednesday’s deadly shipwreck that put highlight the magnitude and complexity of Europe’s migration problems.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday sent French President Emmanuel Macron and EU leaders a letter proposing joint sea, air and land patrols starting next week. France resisted the idea. Johnson has also offered a deal allowing Britain to send migrants back to France.
Macron called on neighboring European countries to do more to stop illegal migration to France, saying that by the time migrants reach French shores hoping to head for Britain “it’s already too late”.
Macron said France was deploying army drones as part of increased efforts to patrol its northern coastline and help rescue migrants at sea. But he also said a greater collective effort was needed, calling France as a “transit country” for migrants bound for Great Britain.
“We need to strengthen cooperation with Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, but also the British and the (European) Commission,” he said during a visit to Croatia. “We need stronger European cooperation.”
Migration is a volatile issue in Europe, where leaders often accuse each other of not doing enough to prevent migrants from entering their country or continuing to other nations.
Ministers from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Britain and EU officials will meet on Sunday to discuss increased efforts to crack down on migrant smuggling rings, the Macron government has announced. .
They will meet in Calais, one of the French coastal towns where migrants congregate, looking for ways to cross the British coast visible from France on a clear day. Beach communities on both sides of the Channel were reeling on Thursday at the horrific toll of the sinking.
“It was unfortunately something that could have been foreseen, a horror scenario that we had feared and dreaded,” said Ludovic Hochart, police union leader in Calais.
Across the Channel in the UK port of Dover, small business owner Paula Elliot said: ‘It’s terrible that people have lost their lives.
“The ships they board, travel, are not suitable,” she said. “They probably don’t understand how strenuous the trip is going to be, and especially at this time of year it’s so much colder than summer.”
Devos, the rescue volunteer, told reporters in comments broadcast by coastal radio station Delta FM that the flimsy boats used by the migrants for the crossing are increasingly overloaded, with up to 50 people on board.
Macron called the dead in Wednesday’s sinking “victims of the worst system, that of human smugglers and traffickers”.
France has never had so many officers mobilized against illegal immigration and its commitment is “total”, he said.
An ever-increasing number of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere are risking the perilous journey from France, in the hope of obtaining asylum or finding better opportunities in Britain.
Sailings have tripled this year compared to 2020. Shipwrecks on the scale of the one seen on Wednesday are not uncommon in the Mediterranean Sea, where this year alone around 1,600 people have died or gone missing, according to estimates from the ‘UN.
The French prosecutor’s office investigating the sinking said the dead included 17 men, seven women and two boys and a girl believed to be teenagers. Magistrates were investigating potential charges of homicide, unintentional injury, aiding illegal migration and criminal association, the prosecutor’s office said.
Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said children and pregnant women were among the dead. Two survivors of the sinking were treated for hypothermia. One is Iraqi, the other Somali, Darmanin said. He said authorities were working to determine the nationality of the victims.
Destabilized by shock and sadness, aid workers and residents of Calais held a silent vigil on Thursday evening in the port city to honor the dead, huddled in cold rain and lighting candles in their memory.
The Macron government has pledged to bring those responsible for the tragedy to justice, putting pressure on investigators. Darmanin announced the arrest of five suspected smugglers who he says are suspected of being linked to the sinking. He gave no details. The prosecutor’s office investigating the deaths confirmed five arrests since Wednesday, but said they did not appear to be related to its investigation.
Darmanin said an alleged smuggler arrested overnight was driving a vehicle registered in Germany and had bought inflatable boats there.
He said criminal groups in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain are behind smuggling rings. He called on these countries to cooperate better against smugglers, saying they do not always respond fully to French judicial requests for information.
“Britain and France must work together. We must no longer be the only ones capable of fighting against smugglers,” said the minister.
In their immediate response to the sinking, French authorities initially gave different figures for the death toll, from at least 27 to 31. The figure Darmanin used Thursday morning on RTL radio was 27.
The minister also criticized the UK government’s migration policies, saying France deports 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 source of tension between the two countries, even as their police forces work together to try to stop the crossings. The question is often used by politicians on both sides to promote an anti-migration agenda.
Darmanin also suggested that by hiring people living in the country illegally, British employers are encouraging illegal migration to English shores.
“English employers use this labor to make the things that English people make and consume,” he said. “We say ‘reform your labor market’.”
British officials, meanwhile, blame France for rejecting their offer for British police and border officials to carry out joint patrols along the Channel coast with French police.
Macron has advocated an immediate increase in funding for the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, according to his office.
“France will not allow the English Channel to become a cemetery,” Macron said.
Leicester reported from Pecq, France. Lori Hinnant in Paris and David Keyton in Dover, England contributed.
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