27 die in Channel's deadliest migrant boat tragedy
CALAIS, France, Nov 25, 2021 (BSS/AFP) - At least 27 migrants trying to
reach England from France died on Wednesday when their boat sank off the
northern French coast, the deadliest disaster since the Channel became a hub
for clandestine crossings.
President Emmanuel Macron vowed France 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
"It is Europe's deepest values -- humanism, respect for the dignity of each
person -- that are in mourning," Macron said.
The disaster caused the highest death toll since at least 2018 when
migrants began using boats en masse to cross the Channel. It comes as
tensions grow between London and Paris over the record numbers of people
Prosecutors opened a manslaughter probe after the boat sank off the
northern port city of Calais. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said four
suspected traffickers accused of being directly linked to the doomed crossing
in a long inflatable boat had been arrested.
Darmanin told reporters in Calais that only two survivors had been found
and both of their lives were in danger. He said five women and one little
girl were among those who died, while Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart said a
pregnant woman was also one of the victims.
The nationality of the migrants was not immediately clear. An initial toll
said 31 migrants had died but the interior ministry later revised this down
Prime Minister Jean Castex will hold a crisis meeting early on Thursday,
his office said.
- France-Britain tensions -
French officials said earlier three helicopters and three boats had
searched the area, uncovering corpses and people unconscious in the water,
after a fisherman sounded the alarm.
Johnson said he was "shocked, appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of
life at sea", following a crisis meeting with senior officials.
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
Britain has urged tougher action from France to stop migrants from making
The issue has added to growing post-Brexit strains between Britain and
France, with a row on fishing rights also still unresolved.
"The response must obviously also come from Britain," said Darmanin,
calling for "a very tough coordinated international response".
In telephone talks, Johnson and Macron agreed on the "urgency of stepping
up joint efforts to prevent these deadly crossings" and that "it is vital to
keep all options on the table" to break the business model of the smuggling
gangs, according to Downing Street.
- Winter warning -
One of the French lifeboat workers, Charles Devos, described seeing "a
flat, deflated inflatable boat with the little air that remained helping it
float" surrounded by bodies of the drowned.
Pierre Roques of the Auberge des Migrants NGO in Calais said the Channel
risked becoming as deadly as the Mediterranean, which has seen a much higher
toll from the migrants crossing.
"People are dying in the Channel, which is becoming a cemetery. And as
England is right opposite, people will continue to cross," he said.
According to the French authorities, 31,500 people attempted to leave for
Britain since the start of the year and 7,800 people have been rescued at
sea, figures which doubled since August.
In Britain, Johnson's Conservative government is coming under intense
pressure, including from its own supporters, to reduce the numbers.
Natalie Elphicke, the Conservative MP for the British Channel port of
Dover, called the sinking "an absolute tragedy" and demonstrated the need to
stop the crossings at their source.
"As winter is approaching, the seas will get rougher, the water colder, the
risk of even more lives tragically being lost greater," she said.
Charlotte Kwantes of Utopia56, an association that works with migrants in
Calais, said "more than 300" migrants had died since 1999 in the area.
"As long as safe passages are not put in place between England and France,
or as long as these people cannot be regularised in France... there will be
deaths at the border," she told AFP.
According to British authorities, more than 25,000 people have now arrived
illegally so far this year, already triple the figure recorded in 2020.