The Washington Post

Migrants drown while trying to reach Britain

Smugglers to blame for at least 27 deaths, say French, British officials

- BY RICK NOACK, KARLA ADAM AND WILLIAM BOOTH

paris — At least 27 migrants died while trying to cross the English Channel from France to Britain on Wednesday, making it one of the deadliest incidents on a dangerous route.

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said in a news conference that 31 bodies had been recovered, including five women and a small girl, while two people survived. But his ministry told French media outlets later that the number of dead had been revised to 27.

One person was thought to be unaccounte­d for when a searchand-rescue operation involving ships and helicopter­s was called off late Wednesday night.

“Today is a [day of ] great national mourning for France, and for Europe, and humanity,” Darmanin said.

Both French and British officials focused the blame on human trafficker­s, though migrant crossings are also a point of contention in the post-brexit tussle between Paris and London. Four suspects who might be connected to the incident had been apprehende­d, Darmanin said.

The Organizati­on for Migration said Wednesday’s drowning amounted to the largest known loss of life in the Channel since the U.n.-affiliated group started recording data in 2014. At least 15 more people have died at other points in 2021, as attempts to cross have increased.

Wednesday’s incident occurred off the coast of Calais, France, in the Dover Strait, where the Channel narrows to 21 miles across. That’s one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. It can also be dangerous for people in small flimsy boats when hammered by strong currents and high winds.

Wednesday’s weather forecast, though, was for fairly calm seas and light and variable winds. Local fishermen told Reuters that

more migrants than usual had tried to set out, to take advantage of the conditions, though the water remained extremely cold.

Officials did not release any informatio­n Wednesday about the nationalit­y of those who drowned. Lille Prosecutor Carole Etienne told the Associated Press that officials were still working to identify the victims and that the investigat­ion may involve multiple countries.

Aid workers say many of the people who try to make the journey are fleeing conflict — in Afghanista­n, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen and elsewhere. Some want to get to Britain to reunite with family, or because they speak English and hope that will help them find work.

Since 1999, at least 300 people have died attempting to cross, according to the Institute of Race Relations, a British think tank.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex called Wednesday’s incident a “tragedy” and condemned human trafficker­s who “exploit the distress and misery” of migrants.

The regional prosecutor opened an investigat­ion into aggravated manslaught­er, organized illegal migration and other potential charges.

French President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement that “France will not let the Channel become a cemetery.” He called for more action at the European level, including an emergency meeting of European ministers and an “immediate reinforcem­ent” of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency’s resources.

From Downing Street, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the drownings “appalling.”

“What this shows is that the gangs who are sending people to sea in these dangerous crafts will literally stop at nothing,” Johnson said.

He added that efforts by France to slow the human smuggling, with $70 million in new funding from Britain to help patrol the beaches, “haven’t been enough.”

“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,” Johnson said.

“Because there is no doubt at all that the gangs concerned, unless they are shown that their business model won’t work, that they can’t simply get people over the Channel from France to the U.K., they will continue to deceive people, to put people’s lives at risk and, as I say, to get away with murder,” he continued.

France’s interior minister called the British government’s spending on stopping Channel smugglers “minimal.” He also complained the British government was using France as a “punchbag” while failing to address its unregulate­d labor market.

Macron, in his statement Wednesday, defended French efforts, saying that more than 1,500 trafficker­s had been caught in the region since the beginning of the year.

French police also regularly clear — in a way that draws complaints from migrants and human rights groups — the makeshift camps on the northern coast, where people gather before attempting to cross the Channel.

Still, nearly three times as many migrants have crossed by sea this year compared with last year. Earlier this month, 1,185 people ventured across in a new daily record that the British Home Office described as “unacceptab­le.”

Conservati­ve Party lawmakers have urged the British government to “take back control” of the Channel. Critics have compared the scene to the U.s.-mexico border, decrying what they see as a too-soft approach to illegal immigratio­n.

In response, Home Secretary Priti Patel recently authorized tough new tactics to push boats back toward France. That policy, however, has not been implemente­d. Such aggressive moves could violate maritime law and endanger lives, if migrant vessels were unseaworth­y and in distress.

Natalie Elphicke, a Conservati­ve lawmaker for Dover, called Wednesday’s incident an “absolute tragedy” and said it highlighte­d why “saving lives at sea starts by stopping the boats entering the water in the first place.”

“As winter is approachin­g the seas will get rougher, the water colder, the risk of even more lives tragically being lost greater,” she said.

Pro-brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, now a host on GB News, has warned that Johnson’s government is ignoring the crossings and opening England’s beaches to illegal immigratio­n.

In a column in the Daily Telegraph on Monday, Farage warned, “the migrant crisis is out of control, and the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to care.”

Farage himself was out in a boat in the English Channel on Wednesday, filming migrant vessels and tweeting, as he prepared for an evening broadcast.

But drowning at sea is not the only way that migrants have died trying to reach Britain. Others have been killed trying to board trucks, containers and trains, traveling either via ship or through the Channel Tunnel.

In 2019, 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead in a shipping container, having suffocated on their journey by sea ferry and truck hauler from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet in southeast England. Two of the smugglers were convicted of manslaught­er and sentenced to 20 and 27 years.

Pham Thi Tra My, 26, was among the victims. She sent a heartbreak­ing text message to her mother when she was in the container, en route to England. “Mom, I love you. I’m dying, I can’t breathe,” she wrote.

 ?? BEN STANSALL/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? TOP: People gather with a sign that reads “30 years of announceme­nts, of inhuman and degrading treatment” on Wednesday in Calais, France, after at least 37 migrants died while crossing the English Channel. ABOVE: Migrants are helped by the Royal National Lifeboat Institutio­n before being taken to a beach in Dungeness, England. Since 1999, at least 300 people have died attempting to cross the English Channel, according to the Institute of Race Relations, a British think tank. RIGHT: Rescue workers leave Calais on Wednesday.
BEN STANSALL/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES TOP: People gather with a sign that reads “30 years of announceme­nts, of inhuman and degrading treatment” on Wednesday in Calais, France, after at least 37 migrants died while crossing the English Channel. ABOVE: Migrants are helped by the Royal National Lifeboat Institutio­n before being taken to a beach in Dungeness, England. Since 1999, at least 300 people have died attempting to cross the English Channel, according to the Institute of Race Relations, a British think tank. RIGHT: Rescue workers leave Calais on Wednesday.
 ?? FRANCOIS LO PRESTI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ??
FRANCOIS LO PRESTI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
 ?? MICHEL SPINGLER/ASSOCIATED PRESS ??
MICHEL SPINGLER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

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