France holds crisis talks after 27 migrants die crossing English Channel

French police patrol the Slack dunes, the day after 27 migrants died when their dinghy deflated as they attempted to cross the English Channel, in Wimereux, near Calais, France, November 25, 2021 (Photo: Reuters)
French police patrol the Slack dunes, the day after 27 migrants died when their dinghy deflated as they attempted to cross the English Channel, in Wimereux, near Calais, France, November 25, 2021 (Photo: Reuters)


Seven women and three minors among dead, French authorities say

PARIS : French authorities are working to identify the 27 migrants whose bodies were recovered from the English Channel on Wednesday as officials hold crisis talks over the area’s deadliest migrant crossing in recent history.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin announced Thursday morning that a fifth person suspected of being involved in the attempt to smuggle the group of migrants across the channel in a small boat had been arrested. Mr. Darmanin is due to speak with U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel on Thursday.

French authorities said seven women and three minors were among the dead. Mr. Darmanin said two survivors, who have been confirmed as Iraqi and Somali nationals, were recovering from hypothermia. Rescue teams were first alerted to the incident around 2 p.m. local time on Wednesday when a fisherman reported seeing bodies floating in the sea.

French prosecutors have opened an investigation into human smuggling and aggravated manslaughter. The migrants were aboard an inflatable boat which rescuers found deflated near the floating bodies.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex is chairing a meeting Thursday with seven government ministers to discuss what can be done to resolve the crisis following the deaths.

Migrant crossings have fueled rising tension between France and the U.K., among several disputes that have soured relations between the countries. British authorities say France isn’t doing enough to stop people from crossing, while France says Britain has made it too easy for migrants to work illegally, drawing them to France’s northern coast to make the voyage.

French President Emmanuel Macron and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke on the phone about the tragedy on Wednesday and agreed to step up efforts to prevent further loss of life in the Channel.

Mr. Darmanin said that smugglers bore the greatest responsibility for the tragedy, adding that countries like France, the U.K., the Netherlands and Belgium needed to cooperate better to stop further tragedies.

“Unfortunately, we are only too familiar with how things go in general," Mr. Darmanin told local radio station RTL. “Migrants, sometimes by the dozen, sometimes by the hundreds, storm a beach to leave for England very quickly, often at high tide, in makeshift boats provided by smugglers, who are criminals."

“There are pregnant women, children who died yesterday," he added. “For a few thousand euros these people are exploited and promised an El Dorado in England and unfortunately this has been happening every day for 20 years."

Increased checks and security at the port of Calais and the Channel Tunnel have pushed a rising number of migrants to attempt to reach the U.K. in small boats, authorities say.

Some 31,500 migrants have left the French coast since the start of the year, with 7,800 of them being rescued at sea, said Philippe Dutrieux, the region’s senior French maritime-law-enforcement officer, in an interview with Agence France-Presse on Nov. 20.

Mr. Dutrieux said smuggling migrants was a lucrative business, adding that boats could leave from anywhere over a coastline about 81 miles long, making it difficult for France to police. On Nov. 3 alone, some 1,600 migrants attempted to cross the channel, he said.

“It’s a game of cat and mouse," Mr. Dutrieux said. “When the weather is good, you can see the cliffs of Dover and you’re under the impression that you can touch them."

Many who risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean from Africa or travel months overland from Asia immediately head north for the U.K. But they often get stuck in France, where their presence has in recent years fueled both cross-Channel tensions and a local backlash.

For migrants in Calais, France, the appeal of crossing the Channel is strong. It is easier for them to find work in the U.K. than in France, and many of those who cross from countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Syria speak at least some English.

France and the U.K. have been quarreling recently over a range of issues. Disputes have flared around post-Brexit matters, including fishing rights in the Channel and an agreement to avoid border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The U.K. in September angered France by striking a deal with Australia and the U.S. that pushed France out of a multibillion-dollar project to supply submarines to Australia.

Mr. Macron Wednesday called for “an emergency meeting of European ministers faced by the migration challenge." He pledged to track down those responsible for smuggling the migrants.

“France will not let the Channel become a cemetery," he said, asking for the “immediate reinforcement" of the resources of Frontex, the European Union’s border-control agency.

Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais, told reporters that governments “need to react and react quickly," adding, “We shouldn’t be waiting for tragedies to act."

“What angers me the most this evening is for several weeks I’ve been alerting members of the government to warn them there are exceptional pressures at the moment," Ms. Bouchart said Wednesday.


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