The Daily Telegraph
27 migrants die in Channel disaster
Johnson demands France ‘step up’ and help stop gangs ‘getting away with murder’ Britain to offer increased support after PM suggests joint patrols on beaches More than 200 people reach England in a day as they race to beat winter storms
FRANCE must “step up” and stop migrants crossing the Channel, Boris Johnson demanded last night, after at least 27 people died off the coast of Calais while trying to reach Britain.
Dozens of bodies, including those of five women and a young girl, were found in the sea after the flimsy boat, likened to a “blow-up paddling pool in a garden”, sank six miles off the coast of Calais in rough seas and cold weather.
The dinghy was hit by a large ship, thought to be a cargo vessel, according to regional paper La Voix du Nord and TV station France 3.
The toll was originally recorded as 31 but was downgraded to 27 late last night by the French interior ministry as rescuers searched for missing migrants.
Earlier, Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, said at a press conference in Calais that only two migrants had been saved from the boat.
The tragedy occurred on another day of chaotic scenes in the Channel, with dozens of boats crossing as migrants rushed to make the dangerous journey before storms are expected to sweep in this weekend.
The Prime Minister convened an emergency Cobra meeting last night amid intense anger among senior government figures over the lack of French action in recent weeks, despite repeated warnings over the potential for loss of life as thousands of migrants tackle the world’s busiest shipping lane in dinghies.
Mr Johnson said after chairing the meeting that the deaths were “appalling” and “underscored how dangerous” it was to cross the Channel, but also showed the efforts to halt the record surge of migrants arriving on the south coast “haven’t been enough”.
He told France “now is the time for us all to step up” and work together to “demolish” the smuggling gangs “who are literally getting away with murder”.
He said the Government, which is providing £54million to France for extra policing, would increase its support, suggesting he backed joint patrols on French beaches to intercept migrants before they sail.
“Our offer is to increase our support but also to work together with our partners on the beaches concerned, on the launching grounds for these boats. That’s something I hope will be acceptable now in view of what has happened,” Mr Johnson said.
“We have had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that the situation deserves. I understand the difficulties that countries face, but we want to do more together.”
Last night, he spoke with President Emmanuel Macron and they agreed joint action was “vital to keep all options on the table to stop these lethal crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs behind them”.
Mr Macron said France would not allow the Channel to become a “cemetery” as he called on his EU counterparts to provide more resources for the European Frontex border force to stop migrants entering the bloc.
Calling for an emergency meeting of European ministers, he said: “It is Europe at its deepest level – humanism, respect for the dignity of each person – that is in mourning tonight.”
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, announced this week that she was in talks with the French for joint sea patrols to intercept the boats, but that her counterparts had rejected offers of Border Force and police officers being deployed to France’s beaches. However, she said last night: “We will continue to intensify all co-operation with France and other European partners to prevent migrants embarking on these deadly journeys.”
At his press conference in Calais, Mr Darmanin said he would be discussing the need for extra resources with Jean Castex, the French prime minister, but said Britain also had to increase its support, claiming the funds from the UK “remain minimal” compared with what the French were spending.
He said: “We have to work together, two major countries that are friends. We have to fight against these traffickers. Sadly our differences in legislation sometimes means there’s a slight lack of co-operation.”
Mr Darmanin disclosed that 255 migrants reached the UK yesterday, including about 40 in a boat from Boulogne who were allowed into the sea by a French police patrol of at least two who appeared to do nothing. They landed at around 2.45pm at Dungeness.
Mr Darmanin claimed 671 migrants were stopped after 780 police and gendarmes were deployed across the French Channel coast. Four smugglers suspected of being directly linked to the sunken boat have been arrested and face fast-track trials, he added.
Jean-marc Puissesseau, the president and chairman of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, accused the smugglers of being murderers, adding: “The poor migrants who have spent months and months to come to here, and who die so close to their dream. I don’t know what to do, really.” More than 25,700 migrants have reached the UK so far this year, treble the number for the whole of 2020. November has been the busiest month on record, with more than 6,000 crossing and two of the highest daily totals of 1,185 and 1,131 migrants.
Tim Loughton, MP for East Worthing and Shoreham and a member of the home affairs committee, said the French had been able to “turn a blind eye” to the numbers crossing because there had been so few casualties until now.
“This might get them to wake up to fact that allowing these people to go on a highly dangerous journey, particularly at this time of year with unsafe weather, has consequences,” he said.
“There are some serious questions that they have to address as to why they have allowed this dangerous trade to go on under their noses without taking practical measures. The result is that we have our first major fatalities. It is a miracle that this hasn’t happened before.”
Tony Smith, the former director general of the Border Force, said it was tragic that two civilised countries had failed to reach an agreement that could end the crossings through joint patrols returning the migrants to France.
“We can stop this at source if we work together,” he said. “That’s perfectly feasible. The French don’t take that view. They are not saving lives. They are basically allowing unsafe boats to sail off into territorial waters which is their responsibility. For me it is squarely on the shoulders of the French.”
Natalie Elphicke, the MP for Dover, said: “This is an absolute tragedy. It underlines why saving lives at sea starts by stopping the boats entering the water in the first place.”
However, Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais said: “This is the fault of Boris Johnson who is forcing our country to endure this set-up because he doesn’t have the courage himself to assume responsibilities in his country.”
Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “This is a humanitarian disaster that should never have happened. It’s incomprehensible that so many lives have been lost by people on a desperate and harrowing journey to Britain who were just trying to find safety.
“Surely a tragedy of this magnitude is the wake-up call our government needs to change its approach and finally commit to an expansion of safe routes for those men, women and children in desperate need of protection.”
‘We have had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that the situation deserves’
HOURS before the disaster, the French police had stood and watched, doing nothing to prevent a rubber dinghy packed with around 40 migrants from launching into the English Channel for the perilous journey to Britain. An alarming photograph showed police officers watching the people smugglers putting their human cargo to sea and failing to intervene.
That boat, launched at 5am from Wimereux, a seaside town just north of Boulogne, made it to Dungeness in Kent hours later.
Another boat that embarked a few miles away, nearer to Calais, did not.
Just after 1pm, a French fisherman came across the horror of bodies – 15 at first glance – floating in the sea. Ominously, there was no boat to be seen. France’s interior minister would later describe the vessel that capsized as “very fragile”, adding by way of explanation: “It was like a pool you blow up in your garden.”
In wintry temperatures – the water was reckoned to be no more than 10C – survival time would be limited, even for those with life jackets.
The sea had been calm and the wind largely still; with winter approaching, yesterday must have seemed like a good day for migrants to reach Britain.
This year, almost 26,000 men, women and children have safely negotiated the Dover Strait, the world’s busiest shipping lane.
They were the lucky ones. Yesterday showed that the luck has to run out.
The fishing vessel that found the corpses put out a mayday signal, triggering a huge emergency response. French and British coastguards, naval ships and helicopters raced to the scene. What they found were more bodies, including at least one girl and five women, and just two survivors – although they were not expected to make it. “Their days are numbered,” said France’s interior minister.
Last night, the official death toll stood at least 27 having been downgraded from 31 by the French interior ministry. It is thought to be the greatest single loss of life in the Channel since the war.
Matt Cocker, a Dover fishing skipper on his boat Portia, had heard the mayday call. He was too far away to help but listened to the tragedy as it unfolded.
“A French fishing vessel must have gone past and they alerted their coastguard. They initially reported 15 bodies in the water,” he said, speaking from out at sea. “The scenes must have been desperate. Awful. Picking bodies out of the water for anyone is the end of things and you don’t want to be doing it.”
His onboard radar did not appear to show other boats in the immediate vicinity of the stricken dinghy – about six miles north of Calais in French waters – suggesting, he said, it had not been hit by a larger vessel.
More likely the boat was overloaded and either split or sank under the weight of its passengers. One big wave might have been enough to force it under.
“These are really cheaply-made flimsy craft. You can barely call them boats,” said Mr Cocker. “The sea was absolutely flat, with probably about 30 migrant boats taking advantage of the best weather for days to cross. But the traffickers put them in cheap plastic inflatables. They’re not proper boats. They overload them and they split and deflate, and the people end up in the water. They often don’t have life jackets. They don’t stand a chance.”
Earlier in the day, Nicolas Margolle, a French fisherman, said he had seen two small dinghies, one with people on board and another empty. It is unclear if the empty boat was the stricken craft.
With at least eight dinghies making the crossing successfully yesterday, it remains unclear whether Mr Margolle was witnessing the disaster unfold and hadn’t realised it.
Mr Margolle said that another fisherman had later called rescue services after seeing 15 people floating motionless nearby, either unconscious or dead.
Three helicopters and three boats were deployed in the initial search, local authorities said. That included a
‘This is not about immigration. It’s about people dying and we are letting them die’
British helicopter from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Dover along with a French naval helicopter and patrol vessel, a police boat and a lifeboat.
It appears that two bodies were pulled out of the water, still conscious but suffering badly from hypothermia. The survivors, should they pull through, will be key to piecing together what happened.
Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, said at a hastily arranged press conference that search operations would continue through the night, although few had hope of finding anyone alive.
Four people, accused of being the traffickers who had sent the migrants to their deaths, were arrested in connection with the tragedy.
Mr Darmanin said the victims had ended up in the water after the boat had sunk. “It was a very fragile boat,” he said., “When life boats arrived, it was already as deflated as a blow-up paddling pool in a garden.”
He said that on the blackest of days, 255 migrants had made it safely across the sea and, defending his country’s record, that 671 were stopped from doing so or arrested. An army of 780 police and gendarmes were monitoring the northern French coast, he said.
“What happened today to our knowledge is that 31 people were drowned between Calais and Dunkirk,” he said. “There are two people who have been saved, and their days are numbered.
“Among the dead, as far as we know five were women and one was a little girl. We don’t have any more information with regards to those people.
“We will carry on searching in the hours to come to see if there are any more people.”
The migrants will have paid a few thousand euros for a voyage in a death trap, likely coming from Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa or Asia. Their goal, having finally reached northern French shores, was the UK.
Jean-marc Puissesseau, the president and chairman of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, called for heads to be banged together in the UK and EU to find a solution, warning that more fatalities would inevitably follow.
“The sea is very, very cold, there is little chance of survival,” said Mr Puissesseau. “Traffickers are assassins. We were waiting for something like this to happen.”
“Even if the sea is not looking so rough, in the middle there are always many waves. It is dangerous. That can happen again because they try everything to get to your country. That’s why I am very upset. I don’t know what to do.”
By yesterday afternoon, the corpses were starting to arrive at the Paul-devot quayside in Calais where the bodies of recovered migrants are usually taken. Around 20 emergency services vehicles along with port authorities were in situ. Leave for firefighters, who were needed in the operation, was cancelled.
Police cordoned off the area and a special motorised hoist was brought to the scene to bring the victims on to dry land. As the bodies were being removed, the blame game was starting.
Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais, suggested Boris Johnson was at fault, but in the UK, responsibility lay for many with the French authorities.
“Part of the problem is the French have not taken it seriously enough because there have been so few casualties and they have been able to turn a blind eye,” said Tim Loughton, Tory MP for East Worthing and Shoreham and a member of the home affairs committee.
“The consequences tragically are that 20 or more migrants have lost their lives in French waters and those migrants could have been stopped from getting in the water in the first place.”
Tony Smith, the former director general of the Border Force, said: “I am so angry. I have told everybody that people are going to drown. This is not about immigration; it’s about people dying and we are letting them die.
“These are vulnerable people in danger. [But] the French don’t take that view. They are not saving lives. They are basically allowing unsafe boats to sail off into territorial waters which is their responsibility. For me, it is squarely on the shoulders of the French.”