British and French leaders have ramped up a war of words over dangerous crossings of the English Channel after at least 27 people died making the sea journey Wednesday, bringing to a head simmering tensions in the migration crisis.
Ministers from both sides of the Channel on Thursday laid blame with their counterparts after dozens of people — including a pregnant woman — drowned in bitterly cold waters off the French coast when their inflatable vessel bound for Britain sank. It is one of the largest losses of life in the English Channel in recent years.
The dead include 17 men, seven women, and three young people who “could be teenagers,” according to the French prosecutor’s office. One of the first rescue personnel to arrive at the scene, Charles Devos of the Société Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer (SNSM), said he found the dead body of a pregnant woman.
The majority of the victims were Iraqi citizens, France’s Calais port director Jean-Marc Puissesseau told CNN. Likewise, Iraqi Kurds appear to be among the victims, the Prime Minister of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq said Thursday. Authorities are working to establish their identities, Masrour Barzani posted on Twitter, adding that “our thoughts are with their families.”
French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson both expressed horror at the tragedy, with Macron saying his country would not let the Channel become a graveyard. The leaders agreed to step up joint efforts to prevent the migrant crossings — which have increased dramatically this year — but also accused each other of not doing enough.
In a phone call on Wednesday night, Macron went further and urged Johnson to stop politicizing the migrant crisis for domestic political gain, according to a French readout of their conversation.
In a thread on Twitter, Johnson stated that both parties had acknowledged the “urgency of the situation.” His proposal includes more joint patrols to prevent boats leaving French beaches, better intelligence sharing and immediate work on a bilateral returns agreement.
“An agreement with France to take back migrants who cross the Channel through this dangerous route would have an immediate and significant impact,” Johnson said.
“If those who reach this country were swiftly returned the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be significantly reduced,” Johnson added. “This would be the single biggest step we could take together to reduce the draw to Northern France and break the business model of criminal gangs.”
Fight against smugglers
Earlier Thursday, the Member of Parliament for Dover, England, where many migrants arrive from France, told CNN that the deaths in the Channel were “entirely foreseeable,” and cast the problem as a border policing issue whose solution lay in France.
“This was an entirely foreseeable tragedy that sooner or later one of these boats would capsize and people would die,” Natalie Elphicke told CNN near Dover’s harbor Thursday.
“People are safe in France, and the best way to keep people safe is to keep them on shore, not in the hands of people smugglers in the middle of the Channel,” she added.
The British politician added that the French “are standing by where people are getting into boats and they’re not stopping them. That’s where the policy needs to change, on the French side.”
Meanwhile French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin urged more support from European neighbors, telling radio station RTL on Thursday that France cannot be the “only ones who can fight against smugglers.”
“We are saying this to our Belgian friends … We are saying this to our German friends… And we are saying this to our English friends, that they must help us to fight against the smugglers who are international, who play with the borders,” Darmanin said.
Asked why the UK attracts so many illegal migrants, Darmanin pointed to Britain’s methods of managing migration and its thriving labor market. “There’s obviously mismanagement of immigration in Britain,” he said.
In the coming days, Darmanin will be holding meetings on better preventing “arrivals on French soil” coming from southern, northern and eastern migration routes, President Macron told reporters Thursday. By the time these migrants reach the English Channel it “is already too late” he said of the deadly crossing.