Deadliest Channel refugee tragedy raises alarm in France, UK

At least 27 refugees and migrants drowned on Wednesday, including three children, renewing humanitarian concerns and a diplomatic battle.

The IOM says about 200 refugees and migrants have died while making the perilous journey so far this year [Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters]

Britain and France are looking at new measures to limit migration across the English Channel and break people-smuggling networks after at least 27 refugees and migrants – including three children and a pregnant woman – drowned off the northern French coast.

Wednesday’s disaster, the deadliest accident on the route since the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Channel began collecting Channel data in 2014, has raised humanitarian concerns.

A protest under the banner “No More Channel Deaths” will take place in London later on Thursday outside the United Kingdom’s Home Office.

President Emmanuel Macron promised France would not allow the Channel to become a “cemetery” and spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to agree on stepping up efforts to thwart the traffickers blamed for the surge in crossings.

Prime Minister Jean Castex will hold a crisis meeting on Thursday with ministers to discuss new measures, his office said.

Seventeen men, seven women and three children 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 IOM says about 200 refugees and migrants have died while making the perilous journey so far this year.

The disaster 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. In September, the UK threatened to send migrant boats back to France.

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

Darmanin said two survivors recovering from hypothermia, an Iraqi and Somali, had been found and would eventually be questioned.

Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart said a pregnant woman was among the victims.

More people making the perilous journey across the English Channel were brought ashore following the tragedy on Thursday.

A group of people wearing life jackets and wrapped in blankets were seen huddled together on board a Royal National Lifeboat Institution or RNLI lifeboat before disembarking in Dover on Thursday morning.

Regarding Wednesday’s incident, 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 coast at Dunkirk before hitting trouble off Calais to the west, a source close to the investigation said.

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 deserves”.

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.

In a terse readout of the talks, the Elysee Palace said Macron told Johnson that France and the UK have a “shared responsibility” and added he “expected the British to cooperate fully and refrain from exploiting a dramatic situation for political ends”.

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, 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 non-governmental organisation (NGO) 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. And as England is right opposite, people will continue to cross,” he said.

According to France, 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 British authorities, more than 25,000 undocumented people have arrived so far this year, already triple the number recorded in 2020.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies