Five arrests as France, UK pledge action after Channel’s deadliest migrant tragedy

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Britain and France were considering new measures on Thursday to limit migration across the Channel and break down human trafficking networks after at least 27 migrants trying to reach England drowned off the coast of the north coast of France.

The disaster is the deadliest accident since the English Channel became a hub for migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia who increasingly use small boats to reach England from France since 2018.

President Emmanuel Macron has vowed that France will not allow the English Channel to become a “graveyard” and also held talks with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to agree on stepping up efforts to thwart traffickers blamed for increased crossings.

“It is Europe’s deepest values ​​- humanism, respect for the dignity of each person – that are in mourning,” Macron said.

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

Seventeen men, seven women and three minors died when the rubber dinghy lost air and took on water off the northern port of Calais on Wednesday, according to the Lille prosecutor’s office. An investigation for manslaughter has been opened.

Calais residents take part in candlelight vigil after migrant tragedy

The disaster also poses a new challenge to cooperation between France and Britain after Brexit. Tensions had already risen over the record number of people crossing, adding to a litany of issues that also include fishing rights.

Home Secretary Gerald Darmanin said a total of five suspected traffickers accused of being directly linked to the doomed crossing had been arrested, with the fifth man on suspicion of purchasing inflatable boats for the crossing.

Darmanin said only two survivors, an Iraqi and a Somali, were found and that they were recovering from extreme hypothermia and would eventually be questioned.

The mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, said a pregnant woman was also among the victims.

“Consult our partners”

French officials said earlier that three helicopters and three boats searched the area, finding corpses and people unconscious in the water, after a fisherman sounded the alarm.

Johnson said he was “shocked, dismayed and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea”, following a crisis meeting with senior officials.

But he also said Britain had encountered “difficulties in persuading some of our partners, especially the French, to do things in a way the situation deserves”.

“The response obviously also has to come from Britain,” Darmanin said, calling for “a very tough coordinated international response”.

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In telephone interviews, 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 shatter the economic model of the smuggling gangs, according to Downing. Street.

British media have said the British government is keen to revive an idea of ​​joint Franco-British patrols on the coast of northern France, which has in the past been rejected by Paris.

Winter warning

One of the French lifeboat workers, Charles Devos, described seeing “a flat, deflated inflatable boat with what little air was left to help it float” surrounded by the bodies of drowned people.

Pierre Roques of the NGO Auberge des Migrants in Calais said the Channel was in danger of becoming as deadly as the Mediterranean, which has seen a much higher number of migrants crossing.

“People are dying in the English Channel, which is becoming a cemetery. And since England is right across the road, people will continue to cross,” he said.

According to French authorities, 31,500 people have tried to leave for Britain since the start of the year and 7,800 people have been rescued at sea, figures which have doubled since August.

In Britain, Johnson’s Conservative government is under intense pressure, including from its own supporters, to cut the numbers.

Darmanin said France had arrested 1,500 smugglers since the start of the year.

He said they “operate like mafia organizations,” using encryption to prevent police from eavesdropping on their phone conversations.

Natalie Elphicke, Conservative MP for the Channel port of Dover, called the sinking “an absolute tragedy” and demonstrated the need to stop the crossings at their source.

Charlotte Kwantes of Utopia56, an association that works with migrants in Calais, said “more than 300” migrants had died since 1999 in the region.

“As long as safe crossings are not put in place between England and France, or as long as these people cannot be regularized in France … there will be deaths at the border,” she said. told AFP.

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

(AFP)

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