The day after at least 27 people died trying to cross the English Channel when their flimsy inflatable boat capsized during the perilous journey, leaders of France and England vowed to make the crossing of migrants tough, even as they offered a boisterous response. at one of the deadliest disasters in recent years involving migrants attempting to cross the narrow waterway that separates the two countries.
French officials confirmed that children and a pregnant woman were among those who drowned, while crews worked in the cold and wind to recover bodies and try to identify those who died. Two people, one from Iraq and one from Somalia, were found and taken to a French hospital, where they were treated for severe hypothermia.
The tragedy was a stark reminder that five years after authorities dismantled a sprawling migrant camp in Calais, both countries are still struggling to cope with the influx of migrants into the area.
France and Britain have long accused each other of not doing enough to curb attempts to cross the Channel. After Wednesday’s tragedy, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson said more needs to be done to enable joint patrols along the French coast.
And France’s President Emmanuel Macron said he expected the British “to cooperate fully and refrain from using this dramatic situation for political resources”.
The two leaders spoke by phone late Wednesday, then said in statements that they had agreed to increased efforts to prevent migrants from making the journey on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
Under an agreement between the two nations, Britain is paying France to limit border crossings through surveillance and patrols.
Johnson said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea in the Channel”. But, he added: “I also want to say that this disaster underlines how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way.”
Mr Macron called for an immediate tightening of border controls and a crackdown on people smugglers with other European countries.
“France will not allow the Channel to become a graveyard,” he said in a statement.
The drownings came just days after French and British authorities reached an agreement to do more to reduce the number of people taking to the sea.
Attempts to reach Britain in small boats have increased in recent years as authorities cracked down on the smuggling of asylum seekers in lorries crossing by ferry or through the Channel Tunnel.
French officials say there have been 47,000 attempts to cross the Channel in small boats since the beginning of the year and 7,800 migrants have been rescued from shipwrecks. As of Wednesday this year, seven people had died or disappeared so far.
Many migrants – often from countries in Africa or the Middle East such as Iraq and Eritrea – consider Britain an ideal destination because English is spoken, because they already have relatives or compatriots there and because it is relatively easy to find. is working outside the books.
But the recent surge in attempts to cross the English Channel by boat reflects a shift in the way migrants travel, not in how much, according to migration experts and human rights groups, who say overall asylum applications in Britain have fallen this year. decreased.
The crossings have become another element in deteriorating relations between France and Britain, which have also clashed over fishing rights and trade checks following Britain’s departure from the European Union, as well as over a submarine alliance between Australia, Britain and the United States that the a previous French deal.
On a clear day it is possible to see the white cliffs of Dover from France. The English coast can seem tantalizingly close, attracting migrants for years who have already crossed Europe, hoping to reach Britain where they believe better opportunities await.
In the dark of Tuesday night, nearly three dozen people, including men, women and children, set out on what French officials described as an “extremely fragile” inflatable boat in the strong currents and icy, choppy waters that divide the two nations.
It is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world and the short distance belies the dangers inherent in the crossing. The dangers are compounded by the fact that many of those attempting the journey are assisted by smugglers who put them in small dinghies, which are overcrowded and unbalanced.
Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, said authorities believed there were about 30 people on a fragile ship which he compared to “a pool you blow up in your yard”.
A French news media report said the migrant boat was hit by a container ship, although French authorities said the circumstances of the disaster are still under investigation.
mr. Darmanin told RTL radio on Thursday that many crossings started in the same way.
“Dozens, sometimes hundreds of migrants storm the beach to leave very quickly, often at high tide, to reach England in makeshift ships,” he said.
On Wednesday afternoon, a fishing vessel alerted maritime authorities that several people had been sighted in the waters off Calais. Ships and helicopters soon began a search and rescue operation.
Two people, one from Iraq and one from Somalia, were found and taken to a French hospital, where they were treated for severe hypothermia. The boat itself was discovered completely deflated, officials said. It was unclear as of Thursday morning how many people may still be missing.
And identifying those who died would likely be complicated by the fact that many migrants hold identity papers before making the crossing. mr. Darmanin said the dead included women and children. It was unclear on Thursday where all the migrants in the group came from.
mr. Darmanin said authorities suspected the ship had been bought in Germany by a smuggler whose car had German number plates. That smuggler, and four others, had been arrested in connection with the shipwreck, Mr. Darmanin.
Sixty to seventy percent of migrants trying to reach Britain come from Germany or the Netherlands and go through Belgium to France to make a quick crossing, Mr Darmanin added.
“Smugglers will pick them up and try to take them to the beach in a few days,” he said. “It’s an international problem.”