UK, France seek ways to curb Channel migration after deaths

They also aim to smash people-smuggling networks after 27 migrants drown in crossing

CALAIS • Britain and France were yesterday 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 Africa, the Middle East and Asia who have been using small boats to reach England from France.

French President Emmanuel Macron vowed that his country 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.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex was set to hold a crisis meeting yesterday 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.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said five suspected traffickers accused of being directly linked to the doomed crossing had been arrested, with the fifth man suspected of buying inflatable boats for the crossing.

Mr Darmanin said only two survivors, an Iraqi and a 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.

French officials said 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 French coast at Dunkirk before hitting trouble off Calais to the west, said a source.

Mr Johnson said he was shocked and deeply saddened by the loss of life. 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".

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, Mr Charles Devos, described seeing "a flat, deflated inflatable boat with the little air that remained helping it float" surrounded by bodies of the drowned.

Mr Pierre Roques, of the non-governmental organisation Auberge des Migrants 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. 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.

According to the British authorities, over 25,000 people have arrived illegally so far this year, triple the figure recorded last year.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 26, 2021, with the headline 'UK, France seek ways to curb Channel migration after deaths'. Subscribe