France demands more support to fight trafficking, after at least 27 migrants drown in English Channel

France demands more support to fight trafficking, after at least 27 migrants drown in English Channel

The French government called for more European and British support for its efforts to combat human trafficking in the English Channel after at least 27 migrants drowned while trying to cross from France to Britain on Wednesday.

Speaking on French radio on Thursday morning, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said “pregnant women, children died.”

French officials had previously said five women and a small girl were among the victims, but an investigation to identify the fatalities and their countries of origin was still ongoing. Two people, from Iraq and Somalia, survived and were being treated for hypothermia, according to Darmanin.

In a phone call with Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday evening, French President Emmanuel Macron “underlined the shared responsibility” and urged the British to “refrain from exploiting a dramatic situation for political purposes,” the Élysée presidential palace said early Thursday.

During their call on Wednesday night, Macron and Johnson agreed to step up joint work and to do everything they can to stop the human traffickers responsible. But it was also clear they had different ideas on who was to blame and how to proceed.

Johnson told British broadcasters on Wednesday that Britain was having difficulty in persuading France “to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves.” He has also renewed his calls for France to agree to joint police patrols along the French Channel coast.

A French lawmaker dismissed the idea that physical help from Britain was the answer. Pierre-Henri Dumont, a lawmaker for Calais, told BBC Radio 4’s Today program on Thursday morning that it wouldn’t work as there was a “question of sovereignty — I’m not sure the British people would accept it the other way round, with the French army patrolling the British shore.”

He said that it wasn’t practical as the coast was too long.

“I’m not sure that having more police officers or more materials on the French shore will help to stop these crossings because we have 200 or 300 kilometers [120 or 180 miles] of shore to monitor 24/7.

“It only takes 5 to 10 minutes to take a boat and put it at sea filled with migrants, so I’m not sure it is only a question of money and question about the number of men,” he said. Licensing of small boats in the area wouldn’t work, he said, as people are buying small boats in Germany or other European countries and bringing them to France.

Migrant crossings have been a point of contention in the post-Brexit tussle between Paris and London — nearly three times as many migrants have crossed by sea this year compared with last year. Johnson said Wednesday that efforts by France to slow the human smuggling, with $70 million in new funding from Britain to help patrol the beaches, “haven’t been enough.”

Wednesday’s drowning marked one of the deadliest incidents on the dangerous Dover Strait route, where the channel narrows to 21 miles across. It is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and can also be dangerous for people in small flimsy boats when hammered by strong currents and high winds.

Five suspects who might be connected to the incident had been apprehended, Darmanin said.

One person was thought to be still unaccounted for when a search-and-rescue operation involving ships and helicopters was called off late Wednesday night.

The International Organization for Migration said Wednesday’s drowning amounted to the largest known loss of life in the channel since the U.N.-affiliated group started recording data in 2014. At least 15 other people have died at other locations in 2021, as attempts to cross have increased.

The interior ministers of Britain and France were expected to hold talks on Thursday, but French officials also called for more support from within the European Union.

Macron demanded an “immediate reinforcement” of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency’s resources. In his radio interview Thursday, Darmanin also singled out Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany as countries that are also linked to trafficking networks, saying that the inflatable boats used in the crossings are often bought in Germany.

“We need to stop being effectively the only ones who are able to act against traffickers,” he said.

Macron, in a statement on Wednesday, defended French efforts, saying that more than 1,500 traffickers had been caught in the region since the beginning of the year.

French police also regularly clear — in a way that draws complaints from migrants and human rights groups — the makeshift camps on the northern coast, where people gather before attempting to cross the Channel.

Home Secretary Priti Patel recently authorized tough new tactics to push boats back toward France. That policy, however, has not been implemented. Such aggressive moves could violate maritime law and endanger lives, if migrant vessels were unseaworthy and in distress.

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