27 migrants drown trying to get from France to UK by boat

PARIS – At least 27 people drowned in freezing waters off the coast of France on Wednesday after a boat carrying migrants trying to reach Britain capsized in the English Channel, one of the worst records of these recent years for migrants attempting the dangerous crossing.

Gerald Darmanin, French interior minister, said the dead, including five women and a little girl, were part of a group whose “extremely fragile” rubber dinghy was found completely deflated by rescuers. French authorities previously gave a death toll of 31, but subsequently revised the figure.

Two people were rescued but were hospitalized with severe hypothermia. It is still not known where the migrants came from, Mr Darmanin told reporters in Calais.

“It is an absolute tragedy that fills us with anger,” he said.

The drownings came just days after the French and British authorities reached an agreement to do more to stem the number of people taking to sea. They also bluntly recalled that five years after the dismantling by the authorities of a A sprawling migrant camp in Calais, the two countries are still struggling to manage the flow of migrants into the region.

“France will not let the English Channel become a cemetery,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement. He called for an immediate strengthening of border controls and increased repression with other European countries against immigrant smugglers. Mr. Darmanin noted, for example, that smugglers sometimes bought boats in Germany and brought them to France for trafficking.

Local maritime authorities said they quickly dispatched rescue vessels and helicopters after a fishing vessel alerted them that several people had been lost off the coast of Calais.

Attempts to reach Britain by boat have increased in recent years as authorities crack down on trafficking in asylum seekers inside trucks crossing the Channel Tunnel.

Since the start of the year, there have been 47,000 attempts to cross the Channel and 7,800 migrants have been rescued from shipwrecks, according to French officials. Seven people had died or were missing so far this year before Wednesday’s incident.

Last week, Decathlon, a large sporting goods chain, announced that it had stopped selling kayaks at its stores in Calais and Grande-Synthe, another town on the north coast, because they could be life threatening. migrants trying to use them to cross. chain.

Many migrants – who often come from African or Middle Eastern countries like Iraq and Eritrea – perceive Britain as an ideal destination because English is spoken there, because they are there. already family or compatriots, and because the labor market is more loose. regulated for undocumented migrants.

But the recent increase in attempts to cross the Channel by boat reflects a change of route rather than an increase in migration, according to migration experts and rights groups, who say that, overall, Asylum claims in Britain are down this year.

The crossings have become another element in the deterioration of relations between France and Britain, with each side accusing the other of not doing enough to curb the attempts. Under an agreement between the two nations, Britain is paying France to crack down on crossings through surveillance and patrols.

Mr. Darmanin, the Minister of the Interior, said that on Wednesday alone, 780 police and gendarmes were monitoring the coastline. More than 250 people made the crossing, he said, and 671 were arrested.

“So it was a day like any other, unfortunately,” he added. He said those primarily responsible for the tragedy were smugglers asking migrants for thousands of euros in return for dangerous passage on fragile ships.

Four smugglers suspected of being linked to the boat that sank on Wednesday have been arrested, Darmanin said.

Migrant rights groups have particularly criticized British officials who, they say, have taken an increasingly harsh stance on asylum seekers, even threatening to push boats back to France.

“This situation is the result of Britain’s shameful policy,” said Pierre Henry, former director of France Terre D’Asile, a migrant rights group. “France cannot continue to be a subcontractor of this kind of migration policy. It is absurd and ineffective. This ends up making the most dangerous form of crossing more expensive. What happened today had to happen. ”

France has also been criticized by nonprofits who claim that the police harass migrants in the vicinity of Calais to make them leave. An October Human Rights Watch report described the tactic as “forced poverty” – restricting food and water distributions, cutting up tents and confiscating sleeping bags, and repeatedly evicting them from the camps.

Olivier Caremelle, local official and former chief of staff to the mayor of Grande-Synthe, who has long housed migrants and refugees, said Wednesday’s deaths were “to be expected” given the significant risks presented by the cold seas of the English Channel. . , intense maritime traffic and changing weather conditions.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked, dismayed and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea in the English Channel”. But, he added: “I also want to say that this disaster underlines how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way. “

French authorities have regularly emptied migrant camps near Calais, offering migrants the opportunity to settle in a refuge and submit asylum applications. But many migrants prefer to continue their journey to Britain. One of these camps, which housed around 1,000 people in Grande-Synthe, was cleaned up last week.

The migrants will continue to try to cross the Channel, Caremelle said, and are determined to “get on boats and try their luck in England”. Only a policy which would try to find them opportunities in France “would convince some of them not to take such risks”, he declared.

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