Tensions escalate between the UK and France over the deaths of at least 27 migrants in the English Channel

The killing of at least 27 people in the English Channel has fueled tensions between the UK and France over how to stop migrants crossing the world’s busiest waterways in small boats.

Despite British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron vowing they would “do everything in their power” to prevent smugglers from putting lives at risk, politicians on both sides of the Canal are already blaming their counterparts for their failure to prevent Wednesday’s tragedy.

British officials expressed frustration with France’s refusal of their offer to strengthen enforcement along the Canal Coast by sending British police officers to jointly patrol with their French counterparts. But Macron said his country needed “more responsible partners” in the UK and the EU to put an end to people crossing illegally.

“We are moving completely along our coast,” Macron told reporters during a visit to Croatia. “Obviously we will maintain this maximum presence … (and) we are asking for additional mobilization from the British. Because I remind you, when it comes to this, we are keeping the frontier for the sake of the British.”

Pregnant women and children are among the victims

A French government official said, on Thursday, that children and pregnant women died when their small boat sank in an attempt to cross the English Channel.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanen said five suspected smugglers have been arrested for their apparent involvement in the deadliest migration tragedy yet on the dangerous sea lane.

In their immediate response to the sinking, the French authorities provided slightly different figures for the numbers killed, from 27 to at least 31. The number Darmanin used Thursday morning on RTL Radio was 27.

French police officers patrol Wimereux Beach, near Calais, France, on Thursday. A French government official says five suspected smugglers have been arrested for their apparent involvement in the canal’s deadliest migration tragedy yet. (François Le Preste/AFP/Getty Images)

Wednesday’s tragedy comes amid a surge in the number of migrants trying to cross the canal in inflatable boats and other small boats after the COVID-19 pandemic limited air and ship travel, and Brexit curtailed its cooperation with neighboring countries.

More than 23,000 people have already entered the UK on small boats this year, up from 8,500 last year and just 300 in 2018, according to data compiled by Parliament.

In June, the British government agreed to pay 54 million pounds ($91 million Canadian) to help France combat people smuggling. The British authorities also proposed joint patrols, but France repeatedly rejected the offer due to fears that it would undermine French sovereignty.

Johnson sent a letter to Macron and the EU leadership on Thursday proposing to start joint sea, air and land patrols as soon as next week. Johnson also proposed an agreement allowing Britain to return migrants to France.

The consequences of Britain’s exit from the European Union

The tensions are at least a consequence of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, which took effect at the beginning of last year.

said Nando Seguna, Professor of International Migration and Forced Displacement at the University of Birmingham. At the same time, smugglers realized that the canal was a profitable route for migrants and were stepping up their efforts with larger boats.

A damaged inflatable boat was photographed on the beach in Wimeru on Thursday. Wednesday’s tragedy comes amid an increase in the number of migrants trying to cross the canal in such inflatable boats. (Michelle Spengler/The Associated Press)

“There was a mechanism in place that would regulate the way in which the movement of asylum seekers is managed within the European Union,” he said. “Now the border is a fairly difficult frontier, and there is no new system capable of managing and controlling this kind of mobility.”

But British newspapers targeted France and published pictures of French police watching migrants set off inflatable boats hours before the fatal sinking on Wednesday.

The sun declared “disgraceful”. “You’re letting gangs get away with it,” the Daily Mail said.

“Disappointingly yesterday, we saw French police in video footage as boats gather and migrants get in and off shore in France,” Natalie Elvick, a lawmaker from the ruling Conservative Party, told The Associated Press.

“Britain has offered to help in personnel and resources, and I hope that the French will now accept this offer and that other European countries will come to the aid of France.”

‘Totally preventable’

Pierre-Henri Dumont, the French MP from the Calais port channel, warned that the British proposal would not solve the problem along the 300 km of coastline that must be constantly monitored.

“I think it’s time for both governments to stop blaming each other and try to talk to each other and find real solutions, not a crazy solution like having more and more people on patrol, and sending the British army ashore the French,” Dumont said. This is unacceptable and will not change anything.”

Activists and members of migrant rights groups light candles in front of a banner reading “309 dead at the French border with the UK since 1999” during a rally outside Calais port on Thursday. (Rafael Yagizadeh/The Associated Press)

Britain has proposed tough new rules to discourage crossing the canals – including the idea of ​​setting up a center to deal with asylum seekers in another country – but they face fierce opposition in Parliament.

Instead of preventing the exploitation of immigrants, these types of policies force people to risk their lives in small boats, according to the Joint Council for Migrant Welfare, a 54-year-old organization set up to protect immigrants’ rights.

Zoe Gardner, the council’s director of policy, told the BBC: “This tragedy was entirely predictable, in fact it was foreseen and completely preventable.” “This must be the right time for our government to be a turning point.”

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