France calls for European aid after 27 migrant deaths at sea

CALAIS, France (AP) – Helicopters buzzed above the waves and ships were already roaming the cold waters when French maritime rescue volunteer Charles Devos added his boat in a frantic search for a fragile migrant boat that sank in the English Channel, killing at least 27.

What Devos found was horrible. But not, he later admitted sadly, totally unexpected. While migrants often left by the hundreds in flotillas of unseaworthy and overloaded vessels in the busy shipping lane crisscrossed by huge freighters, and frequently beset by dangerous weather conditions, waves and currents, Devos feared for a long time that a tragedy ensued.

It happened this week, with the deadliest migration accident to date on the dangerous stretch of sea between France and Britain.

“We picked up six floaters. We passed an inflatable boat which was deflated. The little air left kept it afloat, ”Devos told reporters.

“I was kind of expecting that because I was like, ‘It’s going to end in drama,'” he said.

France and Britain on Thursday called for European aid, pledged increased efforts to tackle human trafficking networks and also exchanged blames and pikes in the wake of Wednesday’s deadly shipwreck that took highlighted the scale and complexity of Europe’s migration problems.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday sent French President Emmanuel Macron and EU leaders a letter proposing joint sea, air and land patrols starting next week. France resisted the idea. Johnson also proposed a deal allowing Britain to return migrants to France.

Macron called on neighboring European countries to do more to stop illegal immigration to France, saying that when migrants reach French shores in the hope of reaching Britain “it is already too late”.

Macron said France was deploying army drones as part of increased efforts to patrol its northern coastline and help rescue migrants at sea. But he also said a larger collective effort was needed, calling the France as a “transit country” for migrants to Great Britain.

“We need to strengthen cooperation with Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, but also the British and the (European) Commission,” he said during a visit to Croatia. “We need enhanced European cooperation.

Migration is an explosive problem in Europe, where leaders often accuse each other of not doing enough to prevent migrants from entering their country or continuing to other countries.

Ministers from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Britain and EU officials will meet on Sunday to discuss increased efforts to crack down on migrant smuggling networks, the government said. Macron.

They will meet in Calais, one of the French coastal towns where migrants congregate, looking for ways to cross to the British coast visible from France on a clear day. The seaside communities on both sides of the channel were in shock Thursday at the terrible toll of the sinking.

“It was unfortunately something that could have been foreseen, a horror scenario that we had feared and dreaded,” said Ludovic Hochart, head of the Calais police union.

Across the Channel, in the UK port of Dover, small business owner Paula Elliot said: “It is appalling that people have lost their lives.

“The ships they take, travel, are not suitable for their use,” she said. “They probably don’t understand how arduous the journey is going to be, and especially at this time of year it’s so much colder than in the summer.”

Devos, the rescue volunteer, told reporters in comments broadcast by coastal radio Delta FM that the fragile boats used by migrants for the crossing are increasingly overcrowded, with up to 50 people on board.

Macron called the dead in Wednesday’s sinking “victims of the worst system, that of human smugglers and traffickers.”

France has never had so many officers mobilized against illegal immigration and its commitment is “total”, he said.

More and more people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere risk the perilous journey from France, in the hope of obtaining asylum or finding better opportunities in Britain.

Crossings have tripled this year compared to 2020. Shipwrecks of the magnitude of that of Wednesday are not uncommon in the Mediterranean, where again this year, around 1,600 people are dead or missing, according to UN estimates. .

The French prosecutor’s office investigating the sinking said the dead included 17 men, seven women and two boys and one girl who are believed to be teenagers. Magistrates were investigating potential charges of homicide, unintentional injury, aiding illegal migration and criminal conspiracy, the prosecutor’s office said.

Home Secretary Gerald Darmanin said children and pregnant women were among the dead. Two survivors of the sinking were treated for hypothermia. One is Iraqi, the other Somali, Darmanin said. He said authorities were trying to determine the nationality of the victims.

Destabilized by the shock and sadness, aid workers and people from Calais organized a silent vigil in the port city on Thursday evening to honor the dead, huddled in a cold rain and lighting candles in their memory.

The Macron government has pledged to bring those responsible for the tragedy to justice, putting pressure on investigators. Darmanin announced the arrest of five suspected smugglers who he said are suspected of being linked to the sinking. He gave no details. The prosecutor’s office investigating the deaths has confirmed five arrests since Wednesday, but said they did not appear to be related to its investigation.

Darmanin said an alleged smuggler arrested overnight drove a vehicle registered in Germany and bought inflatable boats there.

He said criminal groups in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain are behind human trafficking networks. He called on these countries to cooperate better against smugglers, saying that they do not always fully respond to requests for information from the French justice.

“Britain and France must work together. We must no longer be the only ones able to fight against smugglers ”, declared the Minister.

In their immediate response to the sinking, French authorities initially gave different figures on the death toll, from at least 27 to 31. The figure Darmanin used Thursday morning on RTL radio was 27.

The minister also criticized the UK government’s migration policies, saying France expels more people living in the country without legal permission than the UK. police forces are working together to try to stop the crossings. The question is often used by politicians on both sides pushing an anti-migration agenda.

Darmanin also suggested that by hiring people living illegally in the country, UK employers were encouraging illegal migration to English coasts.

“English employers use this work to make the things the English make and consume,” he said. “We say ‘reform your labor market.’ ”

British officials, meanwhile, blame France for rejecting their offer from British police and border officials to conduct joint patrols along the Channel coast with French police.

Macron called for an immediate increase in funding for the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, according to his office.

“France will not allow the Channel to become a cemetery,” Macron said.

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Leicester reported from Pecq, France. Lori Hinnant in Paris and David Keyton in Dover, England, contributed.

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Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration


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