Live Updates: After Channel Drownings, France and U.K. Trade Blame and Promises
Minors and a pregnant woman are said to be among at least 27 people who died after a migrant boat capsized. The disaster has intensified the fractious debate about how to curb perilous small-boat crossings between the two countries.
Migrants from another boat were rescued by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and brought to Dungeness, on the southeast coast of England, on Wednesday. Credit…Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The day after at least 27 people died trying to cross the English Channel when their flimsy inflatable boat capsized during the perilous voyage, the leaders of France and England vowed to crack down on migrant crossings even as they offered a fractious response to one of the deadliest disasters in recent years involving migrants trying to cross the narrow waterway separating the two countries.
French officials confirmed that children and a pregnant woman were among those who had drowned, as crews worked in the cold and wind to recover bodies and to try to identify those who died. Two people, one from Iraq and one from Somalia, were found and taken to a French hospital, where they were being treated for severe hypothermia.
The tragedy was a stark reminder that five years after authorities dismantled a sprawling migrant camp in Calais, both countries are still struggling to handle migrants in the area.
France and Britain have long accused each other of not doing enough to curb attempts to cross the Channel. After the tragedy on Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said greater efforts should be made to allow joint patrols along the French coast.
And President Emmanuel Macron of France said he expected the British “to cooperate fully and to abstain from using this dramatic situation for political means.”
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Macron added that France was in any case only a “country of transit” for migrants who wanted to reach Britain.
“In a way, we are holding the border for the British,” he said, adding that most of the migrants who reach the area around Calais did not want asylum in France despite offers from French authorities.
The two leaders spoke by phone late on Wednesday and said in statements afterward that they had agreed to step up efforts to prevent migrants from making the journey across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Under an agreement between the two nations, Britain pays France to clamp down on crossings through surveillance and patrols.
Mr. Johnson said that he was “shocked and appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea in the Channel.” But, he added: “I also want to say that this disaster underscores how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way.”
Mr. Macron called for an immediate tightening of border controls and an increased crackdown with other European nations on people smugglers.
“France won’t let the Channel become a graveyard,” he said in a statement.
The drownings came only a few days after French and British authorities had reached an agreement to do more to stem the number of people taking to the sea.
Attempts to reach Britain in small boats have increased in recent years as the authorities have cracked down on the smuggling of asylum seekers inside trucks crossing by ferry or through the Channel Tunnel.
Since the beginning of the year, there have been 47,000 attempts to cross the Channel in small boats and 7,800 migrants had been saved from shipwrecks, according to French officials. Before Wednesday, seven people had died or disappeared so far this year.
Many migrants — who are often from countries in Africa or the Middle East like Iraq and Eritrea — consider Britain an ideal destination because English is spoken, because they already have family or compatriots there, and because it can be relatively easy to find off-the-books work.
But the recent increase in attempts to cross the English Channel by boat reflects a shift in how migrants are traveling, not in how many, according to migration experts and rights groups, who say that, overall, asylum applications in Britain are down this year.
The crossings have become another element in the worsening relations between France and Britain, which have also clashed over fishing rights and trading checks after Britain’s departure from the European Union, as well as over a submarine alliance between Australia, Britain and the United States that undermined a previous French deal.
On a clear day, it is possible to see the white cliffs of Dover from France. The English coast can appear tantalizingly close and for years, it has drawn migrants who have already traversed Europe and hope to reach Britain where they believe better opportunities await.
Such is the promise that drove nearly three dozen people, including men, women and children, to set off on what French officials described as an “extremely fragile” inflatable boat into the strong currents and the freezing, choppy waters that divide the two nations.
It is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world and the short distance belies the dangers inherent in the crossing. The perils are made greater by the fact that many of those attempting the journey are assisted by smugglers who pack them onto tiny dinghies, which are overstuffed and unbalanced.
Gerald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, said that the authorities believed about 30 people were crowded onto a frail vessel that he compared to “a pool you blow up in your garden.”
A report in the French news media said that the migrant boat was struck by a container ship, although French authorities said the circumstances of the disaster were still under investigation.
On Thursday, Mr. Darmanin told RTL radio said that many crossings started in the same way.
“Dozens, sometimes hundreds of migrants, take a beach by storm to leave very quickly, often at high tide, to reach England in makeshift vessels,” he said.
On Wednesday afternoon, a fishing vessel alerted maritime authorities that several people had been spotted in the waters off the coast of Calais. Ships and helicopters soon began a search and rescue operation.
Two people, one from Iraq and one from Somalia, were found and taken to a French hospital, where they were being treated for severe hypothermia. The boat itself was discovered completely deflated, officials said. It was still unclear as of Thursday morning how many people might still be missing.
And the work of identifying those who died was likely to be complicated by the fact that many migrants dispose of any identification papers before making the crossing. The prosecutor’s office in the northern French city of Lille, which is investigating the tragedy, said on Thursday that the dead included 17 men, seven women, two boys and a girl. It was still unclear on Thursday where all of the migrants in the group were from.
French officials on Thursday urged European countries to work together on dismantling human smuggling networks after 27 migrants died trying to cross the English Channel, and the country’s interior minister singled out Britain over its policies toward undocumented migrants on British soil.
“When these women and these men arrive on the coast of the Channel, it’s already too late,” President Emmanuel Macron of France told reporters. Neighboring nations like Britain, Germany and Belgium needed to cooperate with France, he added, “to better prevent arrivals on French soil, from southern routes as well as northern and eastern routes, and to better integrate the British in preventing these flows, by dismantling smuggling networks.”
Mr. Macron, speaking at a news conference with the Croatian prime minister in Zagreb, Croatia, where he was on an official visit, insisted that France was only a “country of transit” for migrants who wanted to reach Britain.
“In a way, we are holding the border for the British,” he said, adding that most of the migrants who reach the area around Calais did not want asylum in France despite offers from French authorities.
That echoed remarks by the interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, who in an interview with RTL radio criticized the “attractiveness” of the British labor market, which he said was too loosely policed. “Everyone knows that there are over a million undocumented immigrants in Britain, and British employers use that work force,” he said.
He said that France deported many more migrants than Britain. “There is a bad handling of immigration in Britain,” he added.
Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, said on Thursday that five people had been arrested at the French-Belgian border on suspicion of smuggling material bought in Germany for use in crossing attempts.
He also argued that migrants often crossed the border from Belgium just hours before trying to cross the English Channel, and called for European partners to step up their cooperation in dismantling people-smuggling networks.
Mr. Castex’s office said France had invited the ministers in charge of immigration from Belgium, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands for an emergency meeting in Calais on Sunday.
France has arrested over 1,500 smugglers since January, according to Mr. Darmanin, but their networks operate across borders, so enforcement requires tight cooperation between neighboring countries.
He said, for example, that French authorities suspected the vessel that sank on Wednesday had been bought in Germany by a smuggler whose car had German license plates. That smuggler, and four others, have been arrested in connection with the disaster.
Sixty to 70 percent of the migrants attempting to reach Britain arrived from Germany or the Netherlands and then went through Belgium into France to attempt a quick crossing, Mr. Darmanin added.
“Smugglers pick them up and, over a couple days, try to bring them to the beach,” he said. “It’s an international problem.”
Mr. Darmanin said there were “15 times fewer” migrants in the area than there were 15 years ago, with about 1,000 in Calais and another 1,000 in the area around Dunkirk and Grande-Synthe. The French authorities distribute about 2,200 meals to migrants every day, he said, and had relocated 12,000 of them since January.
But the authorities have recently faced a surge in sea crossings — up to 50 per night on some occasions, said Didier Leschi, the director of the French Office of Immigration and Integration.
“There are more passages in the English Channel today than there are in the Aegean Sea,” Mr. Leschi said in an interview, referring to the sea between Turkey and Greece, which many refugees crossed at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015.
Mr. Leschi said that he could “not recall a tragedy as important” as the deaths on Wednesday, but that monitoring the dozens of miles of coastline from where migrants embark on to the Channel was unrealistic, as it would require “tens of thousands of police officers.”
CALAIS, France — Emmanuel D. Malbah learned on Thursday about the migrant tragedy in the waters of the English Channel, but it has not changed his own plans to try a perilous crossing.
“I don’t believe that I’ll die,” said Mr. Malbah, a 16-year-old from Liberia. “I believe I’ll get to England.”
For now, he has been thwarted.
Before the sun rose on Tuesday, he joined other migrants in what has become something of a ritual along the French coast, rushing to the beach from makeshift camps and jumping aboard small boats.
“The lights on the opposite side,” said Mr. Malbah on Thursday, “I could see them. It gave me enthusiasm, it gave me courage.”
In freezing temperatures, Mr. Malbah and the other migrants, most of them from Sudan, inflated a dinghy they were carrying. But then more migrants joined, Mr. Malbah said, and soon there were too many for the boat. The engine would not start. The French police, likely alerted by the shouting, soon appeared and slashed the dinghy.
Mr. Malbah fled, and his chance of reaching England that night had vanished.
The scene, which he described from a muddy camp near the beaches of Calais, is one that has become all too familiar on France’s northern coast.
Thousands of migrants have already tried to cross from France into England this year, and an increasing number of them are turning to the sea for the voyage on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, facing frigid waters, strong currents and deceptive weather.
On Wednesday, French authorities said that at least 27 migrants had drowned in the English Channel after their boat capsized. The tragedy, which officials said is one of the deadliest accidents involving migrants attempting the crossing, has shocked the public on both sides of the Channel.
Thousands of migrants, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, have been living for years in and around Calais, regularly trying to reach England, attracted by a country with a flexible job market for undocumented migrants and where English is spoken.
Many live in makeshift camps near the beaches, under blue tarps exposed to the changing weather. Some have gathered enough money to pay smugglers and attempt the sea crossing. Others, like Mr. Malbah, a fisherman, know how to drive a boat and can therefore cross free.
Other camps are scattered on the outskirts of Calais, near the main roads, for those who can only afford to smuggle inside trucks crossing the Channel Tunnel. But that has become increasingly difficult as the French authorities have surrounded the entrance of the tunnel with fences and CCTV cameras in recent years, and increased checks on trucks.
Still, some who cannot afford a sea crossing — which often involves paying for someone to steer the boat — try the truck route.
“People here have no money,” Sassd Amian, a 25-year-old Sudanese refugee, said as he walked back to a small camp in the early morning. He said he tried to stow away inside a truck every morning, before dawn.
When trucks drive around a roundabout, on their way to the Channel Tunnel, their trailers detach slightly and leave room to slip between the axles, Mr. Amian said. But doing so is dangerous. Several migrants have lost legs and some have died, according to humanitarian organizations.
But Mr. Amian said he was not afraid, having traveled a long way from Sudan to France, passing through Egypt, Libya and Italy over the past four years, exposing himself to many dangers.
“Death is nothing new in this life,” he said.
Britain on Thursday offered to send ships to patrol France’s coastline and to put British police or troops under French command, if necessary, to help secure French beaches, as London and Paris tried to limit the political fallout from the Channel disaster.
Priti Patel, the British home secretary, said in a statement to Parliament that during talks with her French counterpart, Gerald Darmanin, she had “offered to work with France to put officers on the ground and do absolutely whatever is necessary to secure the area so that vulnerable people do not risk their lives by getting into unseaworthy boats.”
The proposal for joint patrols on the French coast has been previously rejected by France, but the British government hopes that the scope of the disaster on Wednesday, in which at least 27 migrants died, will mark a new phase of increased cooperation.
“We absolutely encourage them and urge them to take these offers forward” Ms. Patel said in Parliament, adding that the two countries “need to deploy every single tool that we have.”
Asked by one lawmaker whether she had offered to send troops and police to operate on France’s beaches — if necessary under French command — Ms. Patel replied that she had.
Paris remains unlikely to agree to British police officers or border guards patrolling French beaches, even under French command. British officials are more optimistic that offers to bolster surveillance capabilities or provide personnel for other tasks might be taken up.
Britain’s other suggestions include greater intelligence cooperation and use of more technology, including license plate recognition systems to monitor vehicle movements near the French coast.
But Ms. Patel said she had requested more information from the French authorities, including “if more officers are needed and a realistic assessment in terms of the numbers of migrants that are coming through from Belgium in particular.”
And she said that she had again raised the issue of striking an agreement with France on returning failed asylum seekers.
Britain came in for its own criticism on Thursday from Mr. Darmanin, France’s interior minister, who said British enforcement of work rules was too lax, making Britain more attractive to migrants seeking off-the-books jobs.
Ms. Patel acknowledged that there was “no silver bullet” or easy solution to the problem of Channel crossings, a phenomenon that has existed for years but that became both more deadly and more visible in recent months when migrants began to use small boats instead of stowing away in trucks.
Well before the tragedy on Wednesday, the issue had become a significant political headache for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. For a British leader who had promised that his marquee project of Brexit would allow Britain to assert more control over its borders, the sight of people arriving in small boats on the beaches of southern England is a considerable embarrassment — one that Ms. Patel, the cabinet minister responsible for migration issues, has pledged to stop.
On Thursday the home secretary also said that she had ruled nothing out and noted that other nations had deployed tactics such as pushing back migrants as they sought to cross frontiers, or processing asylum claims in offshore centers.
In reality, however, Brexit has complicated the problem of the Channel crossings, leaving Britain without any agreement under which it could return failed asylum seekers to E.U. nations. And tensions with Paris have only deteriorated with the bickering over Brexit-related issues such as fishing rights. That has eroded trust between London and Paris, and made the type of cooperation needed to tackle the complex cross-Channel migration crisis ever more difficult.
On the eastern borders of the European Union, another humanitarian crisis is smoldering far from the English Channel. Thousands of migrants, many from Iraqi Kurdistan, remain on Belarus’ western frontier, hoping to enter the European Union through three of its member countries: Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
This month, Polish border officials used water cannons and tear gas to prevent migrants who had occupied a sprawling encampment in Belarus from storming the border. The Belarusian authorities then cleared the encampment, and moved thousands to shelter in a nearby warehouse. Since the beginning of the year, Poland has registered more than 37,000 illegal border crossing attempts, according to Polish border guards.
Up to 15,000 migrants remain in Belarus, the European Commission estimated Tuesday, with about 2,000 near the European Union’s borders, adjacent to Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
Hundreds are still trying to cross every day. On Thursday, Polish police said that 230 migrants had broken through a border fence with the assistance of Belarusian border guards on Wednesday night, but had been sent back. More than 300 were been apprehended trying to cross on Tuesday.
Poland’s president Andrzej Duda told reporters on Thursday that the Belarusian regime had changed its “method.” He said the authorities had relocated migrants to heated warehouses, and were letting migrants attempt to cross the borders in smaller groups during nighttime.
President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, who has led the country for three decades, threatened the European Union in May to “flood” its member states with migrants after it imposed sanctions on him following the forced downing of a plane carrying a Belarusian dissident.
The European Union accuses Belarus of precipitating a migration crisis by loosening its visa rules and encouraging asylum seekers to travel to borders.
Now, with the main migrant encampment in Belarus cleared by the authorities, the focus of the crisis has shifted to the repatriation of migrants still in the country.
Last week, Iraq repatriated hundreds of mainly Kurdish citizens who had spent weeks in the forest on the border. Hundreds more are scheduled to leave this week.
But it is also not clear how many of the migrants remaining in Belarus will agree to leave voluntarily, with some saying they might want to stay in the country.
Monika Pronczukcontributed reporting.
While the deaths of at least 27 migrants in the English Channel have prompted an outcry from European officials, many more people have died in the sea channel between North Africa and Italy, a tragedy that humanitarian organizations say is unfolding largely away from public scrutiny, as they accuse European governments of looking the other way.
After the coronavirus pandemic curbed sea crossings last year, deaths in the Mediterranean are up again, according to migration experts and nongovernmental groups. Around 1,300 migrants have drowned in the central Mediterranean this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, up from 900 last year.
Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman with the organization, said the figures were estimates based on verified shipwrecks, and the real death toll was likely to be higher.
Nongovernmental organizations in contact with migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from North African countries, or with their families, also say that in recent years hundreds of boats in distress had never been found by the authorities or private rescue vessels.
Refugee advocates also accuse the European Union of abandoning the migrants and refugees at sea, as the bloc stepped back after 2017 from search and rescue missions it had initiated after a series of shipwrecks in 2013. Only nongovernmental groups have a few vessels patrolling the high seas.
Mr. Di Giacomo said that from 2014 to 2017, European vessels rescued migrants quite fast, even if the numbers of arrivals were three times as high. “Now, migrants have to wait a long time to be picked up,” he said. “In such precarious situations, even a few minutes can make a difference between life and death.”
On Thursday, the nongovernmental organization Alarm Phone wrote on Twitter that the Tunisian navy was sailing to the rescue of 430 people in distress in Malta’s search and rescue area, more than a day after the organization had warned the Italian authorities that the boat was sinking. The fate of the 430 people was unclear.
The central Mediterranean crossing has for years been the deadliest route for those trying to reach Europe by sea, with over 18,000 deaths since 2014. About 2,570 migrants have died in the route from North African countries like Morocco and Algeria to Spain, and 1,770 while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece.
In January, 43 people from West Africa died in the Central Mediterranean after a boat carrying more than 50 migrants from Libya capsized in rough seas.
In April, in what is believed to be the deadliest accident this year, 130 people died in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya, according to SOS Mediterranee, a nongovernmental organization. Crew from SOS Mediterranee and some commercial vessels went to the migrants’ rescue after receiving a distress call from a rubber dinghy east of Tripoli, but could only retrieve floating bodies.
The barbs exchanged by British and French ministers over Wednesday’s tragedy in the English Channel were a sign of how hard both sides have found it to tackle small-boat migration. But they also reflect growing tensions between the two countries on a far wider range of issues.
Britain and France have been at odds ever since Britain left the European Union two years ago. They have quarreled over fishing rights, over the safety of a British coronavirus vaccine and over a submarine alliance that united Britain, Australia and the United States but left an outraged France on the sidelines. At one point, the fishing fracas prompted both to deploy naval ships to Jersey, leading a London tabloid to bluster, “Our New Trafalgar.”
Domestic politics is playing a part. For Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, ginning up a cross-channel dispute appeals to his pro-Brexit base. For President Emmanuel Macron, the tensions are useful in his bid for re-election in France, given that he faces a challenge from the nationalist right.
At heart, many of the clashes are over who will write the first draft of history: France is determined to show that Brexit has not worked; Britain is desperate to show that it has.
Sylvie Bermann, who recently served as France’s ambassador to Britain, likened Brexit to a divorce and said it was only natural that it would take time for the wounds to heal. Each side is nursing those wounds in different ways.
Mr. Johnson, she said, has made France a scapegoat for problems that were aggravated by Brexit, like the shortage of truck drivers that has caused filling stations to run out of gas. Mr. Macron, who was stung when Australia jilted France for the submarine alliance with Britain and the United States, wants to show that France is stronger inside the European Union than it would be alone, as Britain is.
“We didn’t ask them to become a third country,” Ms. Bermann said. “We would have liked them to stay. They made their choice, and we respect it. But now they can’t enjoy both the advantages and a total freedom.”
CALAIS, France — Activists and volunteers aiding migrants in Calais said that recent steps by France and Britain to increase coastal security and stem dangerous crossings of the English Channel had only worsened the situation, putting migrants at greater risk.
Pierre Roques, the coordinator of the Auberge des Migrants, a group providing assistance to migrants, said France’s northern coastline “had been militarized” over the past few years.
“The more security there is, the more the smuggling networks develop because migrants can’t cross by themselves anymore,” Mr. Roques said.
At the start of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, the English Channel was largely seen as an unbreachable barrier, with its shifting currents, countless ships and volatile weather making any attempt to cross too dangerous. The easiest passage seemed to be by hiding in trucks entering the tunnel to England under the Channel.
But police now regularly patrol around highways, and 12-foot-high fences topped with barbed wire stretch for miles along several roads near the tunnel, preventing migrants from reaching the cargo trucks approaching the tunnel.
In July, Britain agreed to give France about $73 million to buy modern surveillance equipment and increase patrols by French security forces.
The police also regularly crack down on migrant camps, sometimes using tear gas, to keep migrants away and prevent the formation of sprawling camps such as the infamous “Jungle” of Calais, where thousands of refugees gathered for years until it was dismantled in 2016.
Marguerite Combes, the head of the Calais branch of the migrant advocacy group Utopia 56, said that “as soon as there’s the slightest settlement, people are evacuated” by the police, rendering living conditions extremely difficult.
Many migrants fear spending the winter in Calais, she added, which is also one of the reasons sea crossings have surged in recent weeks.
On Thursday, several Sudanese migrants, all lining up for food distribution set up by a nongovernmental organization on the outskirts of Calais, said the police often swept through their camps, sometimes hitting them with electrified batons. A Human Rights Watch report from October described the tactic of harassing migrants to make them leave as “enforced misery.”
Mr. Roques said the increased security had only pushed migrants “into the arms of the smugglers.” The traffickers offer sea crossings for prices ranging from $1,000 to $2,500, according to migrants interviewed in Calais and to Didier Leschi, the director of the French Office of Immigration and Integration.
Emmanuel D. Malbah, a 16-year-old from Liberia, in Western Africa, said he had arrived in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. Mr. Malbah, who hopes to reach Britain, said sea crossings had become a new privileged route for those who could afford it.
“This is a new Mediterranean,” he said of the English Channel.
Alain Ledaguenel, the president of an organization of sea rescuers in the coastal city of Dunkirk, said that since September his team was leading three times as many rescues as before.
“We’ve been sounding the alarm for two years,” he said. “Since September, it hasn’t stopped.”
Volunteers from the organization are fishers, firefighters or doctors who say they did not expect to face such a dire situation at sea. “The state means are increasingly weaker and we find ourselves on the front line,” Mr. Ledaguenel said.
But, he added, “We are not fit to resist such pressure.”
One rescuer, Mr. Ledaguenel said, had told him recently that she had cried for two hours after the rescue of a girl who was the same age as her daughter.