Britain and France point fingers as migrants drown in perilous channel crossing

Geert De Clercq and Ingrid MelanderReuters
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Several migrants have died and others were injured when their boat capsized off Calais.
Camera IconSeveral migrants have died and others were injured when their boat capsized off Calais. Credit: AP

British and French officials have traded blame after 27 migrants died when their dinghy deflated as they made a perilous crossing of the English Channel.

The accident was the worst disaster on record involving migrants in the narrow seaway separating the two countries.

The Channel is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and currents are strong.

Human traffickers typically overload the dinghies, leaving them barely afloat and at the mercy of waves as they try to reach British shores.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Camera IconBoris Johnson. Credit: AP

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked and appalled” by the deaths and called on France to do more to deter people from attempting the crossing.

People trafficking gangs were “literally getting away with murder”, he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Britain needed to stop politicising the issue for domestic gain, while his interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, said the UK had to be a part of the answer.

France had earlier stated 31 people lost their lives, but the number was later revised down to 27, government officials said.

Two migrants were critically ill in hospital with severe hypothermia, Darmanin said.

French police arrested four alleged human traffickers suspected of involvement in the accident.

Regaining control of Britain’s borders was a totem for Brexit campaigners ahead of the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, and the flow of migrants - though relatively low in absolute terms - is a point of friction between London and Paris.

Emmanuel Macron
Camera IconFrench President Emmanuel Macron. Credit: AP

Macron said the EU’s border agency Frontex should get more funds to protect the bloc’s external borders, thereby helping prevent migrants from gathering on France’s northern shores.

Britain has in past weeks accused French authorities of standing by while thousands of migrants leave their shores. France rejects the allegation.

“France will not let the Channel become a graveyard,” Macron said.

More migrants than usual had left France’s northern coastline to take advantage of calm conditions on Wednesday, according to fishermen, although the water was bitterly cold.

Before Wednesday’s disaster, 14 people had drowned this year trying to make it to Britain, a local maritime prefecture official said.

In 2020, a total of seven people died and two disappeared, while in 2019 four died.

Darmanin said when rescuers arrived at the migrants’ dinghy it was “deflated like an inflatable garden pool”.

In his statement, Johnson said he and Macron had agreed to step up efforts to prevent the crossings.

Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart blamed Britain for the problem, saying it should change its immigration policies.

Some rights groups said tighter surveillance was pushing migrants to take greater risks as they sought a better life in the West.

“To accuse only the smugglers is to hide the responsibility of the French and British authorities,” said l’Auberge des Migrants, an advocacy group that supports refugees and displaced people.

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