France, UK seek coordinated response after migrant tragedy

·4-min read

Britain and France on Thursday called for a coordinated European response to stop people-trafficking in the Channel after at least 27 migrants trying to reach England drowned off the northern French coast.

However even as Paris invited European ministers to an emergency meeting at the weekend, the response risked being undermined by continued Franco-British squabbling after Brexit.

The disaster was the deadliest accident since the Channel in 2018 became a key route for migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia who have been increasingly using small boats to reach England from France.

President Emmanuel Macron, after vowing France would not allow the Channel to become a "cemetery", spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to agree on stepping up efforts to thwart the traffickers blamed for the surge in crossings.

Prime Minister Jean Castex also held a crisis meeting on Thursday with ministers to discuss new measures and invited the British, Belgian Dutch and German immigration ministers to a meeting in Calais on Monday.

The talks would aim to "better combat the networks of smugglers who are behind these migration flows", insisting that a response on a "European scale" was needed, his office said.

In London, British Interior Minister Priti Patel said it was "a complicated issue and there is no simple fix" and that it required "a coordinated international effort".

She also refused to rule out the controversial step of turning migrant boats back across the Channel, under legislation now making its way through parliament.

- 'Improve cooperation' -

"France is a transit country, we are fighting against these networks of smugglers who exploit people's mistery, but for this we must improve European cooperation," Macron said on a visit to Croatia, saying that when the migrants arrived in northern France "it is already too late".

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, according to public prosecutors in Lille. A manslaughter probe has been opened.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said a total of five suspected traffickers accused of being directly linked to the doomed crossing had been arrested, the fifth man suspected of buying inflatable boats for the crossing.

Darmanin said only two survivors, an Iraqi and Somali, had been found and they were recovering from extreme hypothermia and would eventually be questioned.

Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart said a pregnant woman was also one of the victims.

About 200 people, mainly activists and some exiles, gathered early on Thursday evening in Calais to pay tribute to the victims.

The circumstances of the tragedy have not yet been clarified, but Mohamed, a 22-year-old Syrian, told AFP he was one of the last people to see them: "They were with me here in Calais three days ago.

"They were Iraqi Kurds, Iranians and Afghans.

"Three days ago, the group told us 'we're leaving for England', and they left," he said.

He said conditions were dangerous yesterday.

"In addition they went to sea without equipment," he said.

- 'Persuading our partners' -

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.

But Johnson told British media London had faced "difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that the situation deserves".

And 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".

British officials said Johnson renewed an offer to send police and border forces to France to carry out joint patrols along the Channel coast -- an idea that has been rebuffed by Paris in the past.

In a sign of the tensions, Britain's biggest-selling tabloid newspapers all carried a front-page picture of a French police vehicle apparently sitting idly by as migrants entered the waters off northern France.

More than 25,700 people have made the cross-Channel journey in small boats this year -- three times the total for the whole of 2020, according to data compiled by Britain's PA news agency.

Darmanin insisted that Paris was doing all it could to break the trafficking networks, saying France had arrested 1,500 people smugglers since the start of the year and accusing them of operating like "mafia organisations".

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