France calls for European help after 27 migrants killed at sea
callis Helicopters hovered over the waves and ships were already cruising in cold waters when French naval rescue volunteer Charles Devos added his boat to the frantic search for a flimsy migrant vehicle that stumbled in the English Channel, killing at least 27 people.
What DeVos found was shocking. But not, as he later wistfully admitted, not at all unexpected. As migrants often set off by the hundreds in fleets of unseaworthy and overburdened ships in the crowded shipping lane criss-crossed by massive cargo ships, often surrounded by treacherous weather, waves and currents, Devos had long feared tragedy.
It came this week, with the deadliest immigration incident yet along the dangerous stretch of sea separating France and Britain.
“We picked up six floating bodies. We passed an inflatable boat that was deflated. A little bit of air left the plane afloat,” DeVos told reporters.
He said, “I was somewhat expecting that because I was saying, ‘The drama is going to be over.
France and Britain on Thursday appealed for European help, promising intensified efforts to combat human smuggling networks and exchanging blame and ideas in the wake of Wednesday’s deadly sinking that once again highlighted the scale and complexity of Europe’s migration problems.
French President Emmanuel Macron has appealed to European neighbors to do more to stop illegal immigration into France, saying that when migrants reach French shores hoping to head to Britain “it is already too late”.
Macron said France was deploying army drones as part of stepping up efforts to patrol its northern coast and help rescue migrants at sea. But he also said a greater collective effort was needed, referring to France as a “transit country” for migrants bound for Britain.
“We need to strengthen cooperation with Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, as well as with the British (European) Commission,” he said during a visit to Croatia. “We need stronger European cooperation.”
Migration is an explosive issue in Europe, with leaders often accusing each other of not doing enough either to prevent migrants from entering their countries or from continuing to other countries.
Macron’s government announced that ministers from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain and European Union officials will meet on Sunday to discuss increased efforts to crack down on migrant smuggling networks.
They will meet in Calais, one of the French coastal towns where immigrants gather, looking for ways to cross to the British coast that can be seen from France on clear days. Coastal communities on both sides of the canal were reeling Thursday from the horrific toll of the drowning.
“This was unfortunately something that could have been foreseen, a horror scenario that we dread and dread,” said Ludovic Hochart, a police union official in Calais.
Across the canal, in the British port of Dover, small business owner Paula Elliott said: “It’s horrific that people have lost their lives.”
“The ships they take, and they travel on, are not fit for purpose,” she said. “They probably don’t understand how arduous the journey will be, especially at this time of year, it’s a lot cooler than it was in the summer.”
The rickety boat that migrants use to cross is increasingly overloaded, with up to 50 people on board, DeVos, the rescue volunteer, told reporters in comments broadcast on coastal Delta FM radio.
Macron described the victims of Wednesday’s drowning as “victims of the worst system, that of smugglers and human traffickers”.
He said France had never mobilized so many officers against illegal immigration and its commitment was “comprehensive”.
Increasing numbers of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere are risking a perilous journey from France, hoping to obtain asylum or find better opportunities in Britain.
Crossings have tripled this year compared to 2020. French authorities said Wednesday’s tragedy was the deadliest in the canal’s migration tragedy since the deaths of seven migrants in October 2020. However, shipwrecks of this size are not uncommon in the Mediterranean. Only this year, around 1,600 people died or went missing, according to United Nations estimates.
The French public prosecutor’s office in charge of investigating the drowning said that among the dead were 17 men, seven women, two boys and a girl, believed to be a teenager. The attorney general’s office said judges are investigating possible charges of murder, manslaughter, aiding illegal immigration and criminal conspiracy.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanen said the dead included children and pregnant women. Two drowning survivors were treated for hypothermia. Darmanin said one of them is Iraqi and the other is Somali. He said the authorities are working to determine the nationalities of the victims.
Macron’s government has vowed to bring those responsible for the tragedy to justice, increasing pressure on investigators. Darman announced the arrest of five alleged smugglers he said were suspected of being linked to the drowning. He did not give details of the alleged links. The prosecutor’s office investigating the deaths has confirmed five arrests since Wednesday but said they did not appear to be linked to its investigation.
Darmanen said a suspected smuggler was arrested at night who was driving a car registered in Germany and bought inflatable boats there.
He said criminal groups in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain were behind the human smuggling networks. He called on those countries to cooperate better against smugglers, saying that they do not always fully respond to requests from the French judiciary for information.
Britain and France must work together. “We should not, in fact, be the only ones able to fight smugglers,” the minister said.
In their immediate response to the sinking, the French authorities initially provided different figures for the number of dead, from 27 to at least 31. The number Darmanin used Thursday morning on RTL radio was 27.
The minister also criticized the British government’s immigration policies, saying France was expelling more people living in the country without legal permission than the UK’s illegal immigration from France’s northern shores to Britain which had long been a source of tension between the two countries, even with their expulsions. Police forces are working together to try to stop the crossings. Politicians on both sides often use the issue to advance an anti-immigration agenda.
“It is clear that immigration is poorly managed in Britain,” Darmanin said.
He also noted that by employing people living in the country illegally, British employers are encouraging illegal immigration to English shores.
He said, “English employers use this work to make the things that the English make and consume, and we say ‘Fix your job market. ”
Meanwhile, British officials criticized France for rejecting their offer of British police and border officers to jointly patrol the coast of the Channel with French police.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that it was clear that French operations to prevent migrant boats from leaving French shores were “not enough”.
Johnson and Macron spoke after the tragedy and agreed to “keep all options on the table to stop these deadly crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs behind them,” Johnson’s office said.
Macron has called for an immediate increase in funding to the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, according to his office.
“France will not allow the canal to become a cemetery,” Macron said.
Lister reports from Le Beck, France. Laurie Hennant contributed from Paris and David Keaton in Dover, England.
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