France expands maritime surveillance as migrants promise to pursue the dream of Britain

A damaged inflatable boat and outboard engines were abandoned by migrants on the beach near Calais, France, on November 25.PASCAL ROSSIGNOL / Reuters

France promised on Thursday to intensify surveillance of its northern shores, but migrants huddled in makeshift camps said neither that nor a tragic drowning the day before would stop them from trying to cross the canal to Britain.

Seventeen men, seven women and three teenagers died on Wednesday when their dinghy was emptied into the canal, one of many such risky journeys attempted in small, overloaded boats by people fleeing poverty and war in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.

The deaths deepened the enmity between Britain and France, already in conflict with Brexit. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said France was wrong and French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin accused Britain of “poor immigration management”.

With connections filled, much of the focus on Thursday was on debt, although both sides promised to seek common solutions.

President Emmanuel Macron defended Paris’ actions but said that France was only a transit country for many migrants and that more European cooperation was needed to tackle illegal immigration.

“I will … say very clearly that our security forces are mobilized day and night,” Macron said during a visit to the Croatian capital Zagreb, promising “maximum mobilization” of French forces, with reservists and drones looking at the coast.

“But above all, we must seriously strengthen cooperation … with Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the European Commission.”

Johnson said later on Thursday that he had written to Macron to describe five steps the two countries could take to avoid more migrants dying.

They included joint patrols to prevent more boats from leaving French shores, using sensors and radar and immediate work on a return agreement with France and a similar agreement with the EU, Johnson said.

When Britain left the EU, the bloc’s system could no longer be used to return migrants to the first Member State they entered.


Wednesday was the worst such incident ever recorded in the waterway that separates Britain and France, one of the world’s busiest waterways.

But migrants in a small makeshift camp on the outskirts of Dunkirk, near the sea, said they would continue to try to reach Britain, regardless of the risks.

“Yesterday is sad and it’s scary but we have to go by boat, there is no other way,” said 28-year-old Manzar, a Kurd from Iran, huddled by a fire with some friends.

“Maybe it’s dangerous, maybe we will die, but maybe it will be safe. We have to try our luck. It is a risk, we already know it is a risk. ” Manzar said he had left Iran six months ago and arrived in France 20 days ago, after passing through Europe.

Britain reiterated an offer to have joint British-French patrols off the French coast near Calais.

Paris has resisted such calls and it is unclear whether it will change five months before a presidential election where migration and security are important topics.

Migration is also a sensitive issue in the UK, where Brexit campaigns have told voters that leaving the EU would mean regaining control of borders. London has previously threatened to cut financial support for France’s border police if it fails to stem the flow of migrants.

British Home Secretary Priti Patel said she would meet with her French counterpart this weekend and sent officials to Paris on Friday to discuss better co-operation.

EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson said she would offer France financial assistance and help from the bloc’s border force, Frontex.


Rescue volunteers and rights groups said drowning was to be expected as smugglers and migrants take more risks to avoid a growing police presence.

“To accuse only the smugglers is to hide the responsibility of the French and British authorities,” said NGO Auberge de Migrants.

It and other groups pointed to the lack of legal migration routes and increased safety at the Eurotunnel’s underwater railway link, which has forced migrants to try the dangerous sea crossing.

“This is a tragedy that we feared, as expected; we had sounded the alarm,” said Bernard Barron, head of the Calais region SNSM, a volunteer group that rescues people at sea.

But Johnson’s spokesman said the provision of a safe route for migrants to apply for asylum from France would only increase incentives for people to make dangerous journeys.

The number of migrants crossing the canal has increased to 25,776 so far in 2021, up from 8,461 in 2020 and 1,835 in 2019, according to the BBC, citing government data.

Before Wednesday’s disaster, 14 people had drowned this year as they tried to reach Britain, a French official said. In 2020, seven people died and two disappeared, while four died in 2019.

British and French officials exchanged debt on Wednesday after 27 migrants died when their dinghy was emptied while making a dangerous crossing of the English Channel.


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