French President Emmanuel Macron vowed France would not allow the English Channel to become a "cemetery" after at least 27 migrants trying to reach England drowned off the northern French coast.
Seventeen men, seven women and three minors died when the inflatable boat lost air and took on water off the northern port of Calais on Wednesday (November 24), according to public prosecutors in Lille. One of the victims was reported to be a pregnant woman. A manslaughter probe has been opened.
The disaster is the deadliest accident since 2018 when the Channel became a hub for migrants from the Africa, the Middle East and Asia who have been increasingly using small boats to reach England from France.
Macron spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson after the tragedy to agree on stepping up efforts to thwart the traffickers blamed for the surge in crossings.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex will hold a crisis meeting on Thursday with ministers to discuss new measures, his office said.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said a total of five suspected smugglers accused of being directly linked to the deadly crossing had been arrested, the fifth man suspected of buying inflatable boats for the crossing.
Speaking on RTL radio, Darmanin said that those migrants were "often attracted" by Britain's labour market.
"It's an international problem ... We tell our Belgian, German and British friends they should help us fight traffickers that work at an international level," Darmanin said.
Darmanin said France and Britain should work together but again put the blame on London for not doing enough to deter migrants from wanting to land on English shores.
"There is bad immigration management (in Britain)," Darmanin said
British Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted that this tragedy "serves as the starkest possible reminder of the dangers of these Channel crossings organised by ruthless criminal gangs". She added that Britain will "continue to intensify all cooperation with France and other European partners to prevent migrants embarking on these deadly journeys".
'Difficulties persuading our partners'
Johnson said he was "shocked, appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea", following a crisis meeting with senior officials.
But he also said Britain had faced "difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that the situation deserves".
In telephone talks, 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 break the business model of the smuggling gangs, according to Downing Street.
In a terse readout of the talks, the Elysee Palace said Macron told Johnson that France and the UK have a "shared responsibility" and added he "expected the British to cooperate fully and refrain from exploiting a dramatic situation for political ends".
'As deadly as Mediterranean'
Pierre Roques of the Auberge des Migrants NGO in Calais said the Channel risked becoming as deadly as the Mediterranean, which has seen a much higher toll from migrant crossings.
"People are dying in the Channel, which is becoming a cemetery. And as England is right opposite, people will continue to cross," he said.
Natalie Elphicke, Conservative MP for the Channel port of Dover, called the sinking "an absolute tragedy" which 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 area.
"As long as safe passages are not put in place between England and France, or as long as these people cannot be given a legal status in France... there will be deaths at the border," she told AFP.
According to the French authorities, 31,500 people have attempted 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. According to British authorities, more than 25,000 people have arrived irregularly so far this year, already triple the figure recorded in 2020.