Undeterred by Channel’s perils, desperate migrants still plan to cross

CALAIS, France – The lights on the other side of the Channel were visible on Thursday, cheering on Emanuel Malbah, an asylum seeker who had been living for the past week in a makeshift camp on the north coast of France and dreaming of making a crossing.

“I don’t believe I’m going to die,” he said. “I believe I will go to England.”

Only a thin waterway separates Mr. Malbah, 16, and other migrants from their target after long journeys across Europe from their homes in the Middle East and Africa. But the narrowness of the passage is deceptive, as became apparent on Wednesday when at least 27 people died in a failed attempt to cross the Channel aboard a flimsy inflatable boat.

Despite the deaths – the disaster was one of the deadliest involving migrants in Europe in recent years – Mr Malbah and others were still waiting for the right moment on Thursday to storm out of the forest in their own boats and head for the beach. to go .

In recent months, the number of migrants entering the Channel has skyrocketed as authorities cracked down on other routes to England, especially by truck through the Channel tunnel.

“This is a new Mediterranean,” said 16-year-old Malbah, who arrived in Calais a week ago, referring to the scene of the 2015 migrant crisis that shook Europe.

Malbah himself made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to Italy after leaving Liberia, in West Africa, more than a year ago. On Thursday, he spoke in a wooded area near the coast where dozens of other asylum seekers took shelter from the rain under blue tarpaulins and tried to keep warm around a fire.

Following the tragedy at sea the day before, French and British leaders pledged to crack down on migrants crossing the canal separating their two countries, blaming organized smuggling gangs and each other.

The deaths were a sobering reminder of how little has changed in the five years since French authorities dismantled a sprawling migrant camp in Calais. Both countries are still struggling to deal with migrants in the area by pursuing policies that migrant rights groups and immigration experts say endangers asylum seekers unnecessarily.

On Thursday, French officials confirmed that children and a pregnant woman were among those who had drowned, as crews worked in the cold and wind to recover bodies and try to identify the dead.

Two survivors, one from Iraq and one from Somalia, were found and taken to a French hospital, where they were treated for severe hypothermia.

Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, said authorities believed about 30 people had been crammed onto a ship he compared to “a pool you blow up in your yard”.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke by phone on Wednesday and said they had agreed to step up efforts to prevent migrants from making the journey across one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Britain is currently giving France money to cover the cost of deterring crossings through guards and patrols.

While the two countries have long accused each other of doing too little to curb border crossings, many immigration experts and human rights organizations say both sides share a responsibility: their approach has been to make the situation of asylum seekers as difficult as possible, to discourage them from way to Europe.

“France is in the position of subcontractor to Britain in the same way that Turkey is to Europe,” said François Héran, an expert on migration at the Collège de France in Paris. “Why is France allowing British police officers on French soil to help stop immigration? It is because we share the same ideology that these asylum seekers are unwanted.”

At the start of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, the English Channel was considered an impenetrable barrier, as changing currents and changeable weather made any attempt to cross too dangerous.

Many instead tried to get on lorries entering the tunnel under the Channel. But now police regularly patrol roads leading to the canal, stretching miles of 3-metre high barbed wire fences along several routes to Calais harbour. This has greatly reduced the number of migrants that hitch a ride on trucks.

Pierre Roques, the coordinator of the Auberge des Migrants, a non-profit organization based in Calais, said France’s northern coast has been “militarized” in recent years, adding that “the more security there is, the more smuggling networks develop, as migrants can no longer cross alone.”

Several Sudanese migrants lining up at a food distribution on the outskirts of Calais said police often searched their makeshift camps, sometimes beating them with electric batons. A Human Rights Watch report released in October described the tactic of harassing migrants to get them to leave as “forced misery”.

Migrants are playing a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities.

Mr Malbah, the teenager from Liberia, described an attempted crossing on Tuesday that had to be aborted because the inflatable boat’s engine would not start. French police showed up shortly afterwards and cut the boat, he said.

Didier Leschi, the director of France’s Immigration and Integration Agency, attributed the increase in Channel Crossings — sometimes up to 50 a night, he said — to “a kind of mafia professionalism” by smugglers encouraging migrants to go to sea. , at prices ranging from $1,100 to $2,800.

France would need “tens of thousands of police officers” to keep an eye on the long coastline from which migrants come, he said.

Migrant rights groups said authorities have done little to deal with the proliferation of boat crossings, other than cracking down on them.

Alain Ledaguenel, the chairman of a private organization that conducts rescues at sea from Dunkirk, the city from which the migrants who died Wednesday most likely departed, said his team has conducted three times as many rescues at sea in recent months.

“We’ve been sounding the alarm for two years now,” he said. “It hasn’t stopped since September.”

In a damning report released last month, the National Assembly said the French government’s migrant policy had been a failure and led to violations of migrants’ rights. According to the report, of all the money the French and British spent in 2020 to tackle the migrant population along the French coast, about 85 percent has been spent on security and only 15 percent on health care and other aid.

That was proof that authorities were sticking to the policy of making conditions in Calais as harsh as possible to deter others from coming, said Sonia Krimi, a co-author of the report and a lawmaker in Mr Macron’s party. , La Republique and Marche. .

“It’s been 30 years since we did that, and it’s not working,” Ms Krimi said. “Immigration has existed, exists and will always exist.”

But the politically explosive nature of immigration, especially five months before the presidential election in France, makes it difficult to consider new approaches, Ms Krimi said. Her report – which recommended improving housing and working conditions for migrants and streamlining asylum applications – was criticized even by members of her own party.

In Calais, migrants hoping to reach Britain are becoming increasingly desperate.

Sassd Amian, 25, a migrant from South Sudan, said he pinned his hopes on the trucks headed for the Channel Tunnel.

Mr Amian, an architecture graduate, said his ‘dream was to go to England’, which he described as ‘a strong country, well-educated and where the English language is spoken’.

Mr Amian said he had fled the war in South Sudan four years ago and made it through the Mediterranean crossing to Italy, without food and water, after stopping in Egypt and Libya.

When lorries on their way to the Channel Tunnel go through a roundabout, there is a moment – just a few seconds – when one can try to slip between the axles and find shelter, Mr Amian said. Several people have lost legs and some have died trying, migrants say.

But when he got this far, Mr. Amian said he wasn’t afraid.

“Death,” he said, “is nothing new in this life.”

Constant Meheut reported from Calais an Norimitsu Onishic from Paris Aurelien Breeden NS Leontine Gallois contributed reporting from Paris.

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