Desperate migrants, who are not deterred by the dangers of the canal, still plan to cross

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CALAIS, France – The lights on the opposite side of the English Channel were visible on Thursday, encouraging Emanuel Malbah, an asylum seeker who has lived in a temporary camp on the north coast of France for the past week and dreamed of crossing an intersection.

“I do not think I will die,” he said. “I think I’m coming to England.”

Only a thin waterway separates Malbah, 16, and other migrants from their destinations after long journeys through Europe from homes they fled in the Middle East and Africa. But the narrowness of the passage is misleading, which was made clear on Wednesday at least then 27 people though in a failed attempt to cross the canal aboard a thin rubber dinghy.

Despite the deaths – the disaster was one of the deadliest migrants in Europe in recent years – Malbah and other people were still waiting on Thursday at the right time to rush out of the woods with their own boats and take a break to the beach.

In recent months, the number of migrants leaving the canal has skyrocketed as the authorities have cracked down on other roads to England, especially by truck through the tunnel under the canal.

“This is a new Mediterranean area,” said Malbah, 16, who arrived in Calais a week ago, citing the scene of the 2015 migrant crisis that shook Europe.

Mr 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 forest area near the coast where dozens of other asylum seekers sought protection from the rain under blue tarpaulins and tried to keep warm around a fire.

Caused by the tragedy at sea a day earlier, French and British leaders promised to crack down on migrants crossing the canal that separates their two countries, blaming organized smuggling rings and even each other.

The deaths offered a sober reminder of how little has changed in the five years since the French authorities dismantled an extensive migrant camp in Calais. Both countries are still struggling to deal with migrants in the area by following a policy that migrant rights groups and immigration experts say puts asylum seekers at unnecessary risk.

On Thursday, French officials confirmed that children and a pregnant woman were among those 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 forced into a ship he compared to “a pool you blow up in your garden.”

French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke by telephone on Wednesday, saying they had agreed to step up efforts to prevent migrants from crossing one of the world’s busiest waterways. The UK is currently giving France money to cover the cost of deterring crossings through surveillance and patrolling.

Although both nations have long accused each other of doing too little to curb the crossings, many immigration experts and rights groups say both sides share the responsibility: Their approach has been to make the situation of asylum seekers as difficult as possible, to deter them from road to Europe.

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

In the beginning of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015The English Channel was considered an unbreakable barrier, its changing currents and volatile weather made any attempt to cross over too dangerous.

Many instead tried to get on trucks that drove into the tunnel under the canal. But now police regularly patrol roads leading to the canal, and 12-foot-high barbed wire fences stretch for miles along several roads to the port of Calais. It has greatly reduced the number of migrants coupling trucks.

Pierre Roques, the coordinator of the Auberge des Migrants, a non-profit group in Calais, said France’s northern coastline had “militarized” in recent years, adding that “the more security there is, the more smuggling networks develop, as migrants cannot cross over on their own. longer. “

Several Sudanese migrants lined up at a food distribution on the outskirts of Calais said police often swept through their makeshift camps and sometimes beat them with electric sticks. A Human Rights Watch report released in October described the tactic of harassing migrants to make them leave as “forced misery”.

Migrants play a cat-and-rat game with the authorities.

Mr Malbah, the teenager from Liberia, described an attempted crossing on Tuesday that had to be stopped because the engine on the dinghy did not want to start. The French police showed up shortly after and smashed the boat, he said.

Didier Leschi, head of the French Immigration and Integration Agency, attributed the increase in canal crossings – sometimes up to 50 a night, he said – to “a kind of mafia professionalism” of smugglers encouraging migrants to go to sea, at far-reaching prices from $ 1,100 to $ 2,800.

To monitor the long coastline from which migrants leave, he said, France would need “tens of thousands of police.”

Migrant rights groups said that apart from cracking down, the authorities have not done much to address the increase in boat crossings.

Alain Ledaguenel, president of a private rescue organization from Dunkirk, the city from which the migrants who died on Wednesday most likely left, said his team has been involved in three times more sea rescues in recent months.

“We have been sounding the alarm for two years,” he said. “Since September, it has not stopped.”

In a condemnatory report released last month, the National Assembly said that the French government’s migration policy had been a failure and that it had led to violations of migrants’ rights. According to the report, of all the money spent by the French and British in 2020 to manage the migrant population along the French coast, about 85 percent was used for security and only 15 percent for health and other aid.

It was proof that the authorities adhered to the policy of making conditions in Calais as harsh as possible to deter others from coming, said Sonia Krimi, co-author of the report and legislator in Macron’s party, La République en Marche.

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

But the politically explosive nature of immigration, especially five months before the French presidential election, makes it difficult to consider new approaches, Krimi said. Her report – which recommended improving the living and working conditions of 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 put his hope in the trucks on their way to the Channel Tunnel.

A degree in architecture, Mr. Amian said it was his “dream to come 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 that he had endured the crossing of the Mediterranean to Italy, with a shortage of food and water, following stops in Egypt and Libya.

When trucks go through a roundabout on the way to the canal tunnel, there is a moment – just a few seconds – when you can try to slide in between the shoulders and find a hiding place, said Amian. Several people have lost their legs and some have died when they tried, migrants say.

But after getting this far, Mr. Amian that he was fearless.

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

Constant Meheut reported from Calais, and Norimitsu Onishi from Paris. Aurelien Breeden and Léontine Gallois contributed with reporting from Paris.

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