CALAIS, France (AP) – Helicopters were buzzing above the waves and ships were already searching the cold water as French lifeguard Charles Devos joined his boat in the desperate search for a thin migrant vessel founded in the English Channel, killing at least 27 people.
What Devos found was awful. But no, he later admitted sadly, completely unexpectedly. With migrants often taking off in hundreds of flotillas of un seaworthy and congested ships into the bustling shipping lanes of bulky cargo ships, and often surrounded by treacherous weather, waves and currents, Devos had long feared tragedy.
It came this week, with the deadliest migration accident to date on the dangerous stretch of sea that separates France and Britain.
“We picked up six liquid bodies. We passed an inflatable vessel that was emptied of air. The little air that remained kept it liquid,” Devos told reporters.
“I was expecting something because I would say, ‘It’s going to end with a drama,'” he said.
France and Britain on Thursday appealed for European aid, pledged increased efforts to combat human trafficking networks and even swapped debts and barbs in the wake of Wednesday’s deadly sinking that shed light on the scale and complexity of Europe’s migration problems.
On Thursday, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson sent a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron and the EU leadership proposing joint naval, air and land patrols starting as soon as next week. France has opposed the idea. Johnson also proposed an agreement allowing Britain to send migrants back to France.
Macron appealed to European neighbors to do more to quit illegal migration into France and said that when migrants reach French coasts hoping to move on to Britain “it is already too late.”
Macron said France was using army drones as part of increased efforts to patrol its northern coastline and help rescue migrants at sea. But he also said a greater collective effort was needed, citing France as a “transit country” for migrants bound to Britain.
“We need to strengthen cooperation with Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, but also the United Kingdom and the (European) Commission,” he said during a visit to Croatia. “We need stronger European cooperation.”
Migration is an explosive issue in Europe, where leaders often accuse each other of not doing enough to either prevent migrants from entering their countries or from continuing to other nations.
Ministers from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom and EU officials will meet on Sunday to discuss increased efforts to crack down on migrant smuggling networks, Macron’s government said.
They will gather in Calais, one of the French coastal cities where migrants gather and look for ways to get over to the British coast, which is visible from France on clear days. The sea communities on both sides of the canal were nagging on Thursday from the terrible charge of the sinking.
“Unfortunately, this was something that could have been foreseen, a horror scenario that we had feared and feared,” said Ludovic Hochart, a Calais police officer.
Across the canal, in the British port of Dover, small business owner Paula Elliot said: “It’s awful that people have lost their lives.”
“The ships they take, travel in, are not fit for purpose,” she said. “They probably do not understand how arduous the journey will be, and especially at this time of year it is so much colder than in the summer.”
Devos, the rescue volunteer, told reporters in comments broadcast by coastal radio Delta FM that the thin vessels used by migrants for the transition are becoming increasingly congested, with as many as 50 people on board.
Macron described the dead in Wednesday’s sinking as “victims of the worst system, that of smugglers and human traffickers.”
France has never had so many officers mobilized against illegal migration and its commitment is “total”, he said.
An ever-increasing number of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere risk the perilous journey from France in hopes of gaining asylum or finding better opportunities in Britain.
The crossings have tripled this year compared to 2020. Shipwrecks of the magnitude we saw on Wednesday are not uncommon in the Mediterranean, where this year alone about 1,600 people have died or disappeared, according to UN estimates.
The French prosecutor’s office tasked with investigating the sinking said the dead included 17 men, seven women and two boys and a girl believed to be teenagers. Judges are investigating potential allegations of murder, unintentional wounding, aiding and abetting illegal migration and criminal conspiracy, prosecutors said.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said children and pregnant women were among the dead. Two survivors of the sinking were treated for hypothermia. One is Iraqi, the other Somali, Darmanin said. He said authorities are working to establish the nationality of the victims.
Destabilized by shock and grief, aid workers and residents of Calais held a silent vigil on Thursday night in the port city to honor the dead, huddled under a cold rain and lit candles in their memory.
Macron’s government promised to bring those responsible for the tragedy to justice and put pressure on investigators. Darmanin announced the arrest of five alleged smugglers he said were linked to the sinking. He gave no details. The prosecutor’s office, which is investigating the deaths, confirmed five arrests since Wednesday, but said that they do not appear to be connected to the investigation.
Darmanin said that a suspected smuggler who was arrested overnight drove a vehicle registered in Germany and had bought inflatable boats there.
He said that criminal groups in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom were behind networks of human trafficking. He called on these countries to cooperate better with smugglers and said they did not always respond fully to French legal requests for information.
“Britain and France must work together. We must no longer be the only ones who can fight the smugglers,” he said.
In its immediate response to the sinking, French authorities initially gave different figures on the number of dead, from at least 27 to 31. The figure that Darmanin used on Thursday morning on RTL radio was 27.
The minister also took a swipe at the British government’s migration policy, saying that France expels more people living in the country without a legal permit than Britain. Illegal migration from the northern coasts of France to Britain has long been a source of tension between the two countries, although their police forces are cooperating to try to stop intersections. The issue is often used by politicians on both sides who pursue an anti-migration agenda.
Darmanin also suggested that by employing people living illegally in the country, British employers encourage illegal migration to English coasts.
“English employers use this work to make the things that the English make and consume,” he said. “We say ‘reform your job market’.”
British officials meanwhile criticize France for rejecting their offer of British police and border officials to conduct joint patrols along the Channel coast with French police.
Macron advocated an immediate increase in funding for the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, according to his office.
“France will not allow the canal to become a cemetery,” Macron said.
Leicester reported from Le Pecq, France. Lori Hinnant in Paris and David Keyton in Dover, England, contributed.
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