(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A damaged inflatable dinghy and a sleeping bag abandonned by migrants are seen on the beach near Wimereux, France, November 24, 2021. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
By Layli Foroudi and Lucien Libert
DUNKIRK, France/ZAGREB (Reuters) -France said on Thursday it will beef up the surveillance of its northern shores, but migrants huddling in makeshift camps said neither that nor a tragic drowning the day before would stop them from trying to cross the Channel to Britain.
Seventeen men, seven women and three teenagers died on Wednesday when their dinghy deflated in the Channel, one of many such risky journeys attempted in rickety, overloaded boats by people fleeing poverty and war in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.
The deaths deepened animosity between Britain and France, already at odds over Brexit, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying France was at fault and French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin accusing Britain of “bad immigration management”.
With relations fraught over Brexit and immigration, much of the focus on Thursday was on who should bear responsibility, even if both sides vowed to seek joint solutions.
President Emmanuel Macron defended Paris’s actions but said France was merely a transit country for many migrants and more European cooperation was needed to tackle illegal immigration.
“I will … say very clearly that our security forces are mobilised day and night,” Macron said during a visit to the Croatian capital Zagreb, promising “maximum mobilisation” of French forces, with reservists and drones watching the coast.
“But above all, we need to seriously strengthen cooperation … with Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain and the European Commission.”
“MAYBE WE DIE”
Wednesday’s incident was the worst of its kind on record in the waterway separating Britain and France, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
But migrants in a small makeshift camp in the outskirts of Dunkirk, near the seashore, said they would keep trying to reach Britain, no matter the risks https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/choosing-between-bad-worse-migrants-dilemma-after-channel-tragedy-2021-11-25.
“Yesterday is sad and it is scary but we have to go by boat, there is no other way,” said 28-year old Manzar, a Kurd from Iran, huddled by a fire alongside a few friends.
“Maybe it’s dangerous, maybe we die, but maybe it will be safe. We have to try our chance. It’s a risk, we already know it is a risk,” said the young man, who left Iran six months ago and arrived in France 20 days ago, after walking across Europe.
Britain on Thursday repeated an offer to have joint British-French patrols off the French coast near Calais.
Paris has resisted such calls and it is unclear whether it will change its mind five months before a presidential election in which migration and security are important topics.
They are also sensitive issues in Britain, where Brexit campaigners told voters that leaving the European Union would mean regaining control of the country’s borders. London has in the past threatened to cut financial support for France’s border policing if Paris fails to stem the flow of migrants.
One smuggler arrested overnight had bought dinghies in Germany, and many cross via Belgium before reaching France’s northern shores on their way to Britain, French officials said.
EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson said she would talk to Darmanin later on Thursday to offer financial help and assistance from the bloc’s border guard force Frontex.
‘A TRAGEDY THAT WE DREADED’
Rescue volunteers and rights groups said such drowning incidents were to be expected as smugglers and migrants take more risks to avoid a growing police presence.
“To accuse only the smugglers is to hide the responsibility of the French and British authorities,” the Auberge de Migrants NGO said. It and other NGOs pointed to a lack of legal migration routes and added security at the Eurotunnel undersea rail link, which has pushed migrants to try the perilous sea crossing.
“This a tragedy that we dreaded, that was expected, we had sounded the alarm,” said Bernard Barron, head of the Calais region SNSM, a volunteer group which rescues people at sea.
But Britain rejected one of the NGOs’ main demands.
Providing a safe route for migrants to claim asylum from France would only add to pull factors encouraging people to make dangerous journeys, Johnson’s spokesman said when asked about the possibility of a safe means of claiming asylum from France.
The number of migrants crossing the Channel has surged to 25,776 so far in 2021, up from 8,461 in 2020 and 1,835 in 2019, according to the BBC, citing government data.
Before Wednesday’s disaster, 14 people had drowned this year trying to reach Britain, a French official said. In 2020, seven people died and two disappeared, while in 2019 four died.