British and French officials exchanged blame on Wednesday after 27 migrants died when their dinghy deflated as they made a perilous Channel crossing.
The accident was the worst disaster on record involving migrants in the narrow sea lane separating the two countries.
The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and the currents are strong. Human traffickers typically overload inflatable boats, leaving them barely afloat and at the mercy of the waves as they attempt to reach British shores.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked and appalled” by the deaths and called on France to do more to deter people from attempting the crossing. Human trafficking gangs “literally got away with murder,” he said.
President Emmanuel Macron has said Britain must stop politicizing the issue for internal purposes, while Home Secretary Gerald Darmanin has said Britain must also be part of the response.
Report by Wassim Cornet of France 24 from Calais following the sinking of a migrant boat in the English Channel
France previously said 31 people lost their lives, but the number was later revised down to 27, government officials said.
Two migrants were critically ill in hospital with severe hypothermia, Darmanin said.
French police arrested four human traffickers suspected of being involved in the accident. Darmanin said the nationalities and identities of the migrants were not known.
The resumption of British border control was a totem pole for Brexit campaigners before the 2016 referendum on Britain’s accession to the European Union and the flow of migrants, while relatively small in absolute terms, is a point of friction between London and Paris.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the EU’s border agency Frontex should be given more financial means to protect the bloc’s external borders, thus helping to prevent migrants from congregating on the northern coasts of the France.
In recent weeks, Britain has accused French authorities of standing idly by as thousands of migrants leave their shores. France rejects the allegation.
“France will not let the English Channel become a cemetery,” Macron said.
More migrants than usual left the French Channel coasts on Wednesday to take advantage of calm sea conditions, according to fishermen, although the water is very cold.
At dawn on Wednesday, Reuters saw a group of migrants emerge from the sand dunes near Wimereux before crowding into a rubber dinghy. The same group was seen landing hours later in Dungeness, southern England, having safely crossed the 30km stretch of water.
Ahead of Wednesday’s disaster, 14 people had drowned this year trying to get to Britain, an official with the local maritime prefecture said. In 2020, a total of seven people died and two were missing, while in 2019, four died.
Fisherman Nicolas Margolle told Reuters he saw two small rubber dinghies earlier Wednesday, one with people on board and the other empty.
He said another fisherman called for emergency services after seeing an empty dinghy and 15 people floating motionless nearby, unconscious or dead.
Darmanin said the migrants’ dinghy deflated and when rescuers arrived it was “deflated like an inflatable garden pool”.
While French police have prevented more crossings than in previous years, they have only partially stemmed the flow of migrants wishing to reach Britain – one of the many sources of tension between Paris and London.
In his statement, Johnson said he and Macron had agreed to step up efforts to prevent crossings.
Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart blamed Britain for the problem, saying it should change its immigration policies.
Some rights groups have said tighter oversight pushes migrants to take more risks as they seek a better life in the West.
“To accuse only the smugglers is to hide the responsibility of the French and British authorities,” said Auberge des Migrants, an advocacy group that supports refugees and displaced people.