France beefs up sea rescue work, spars with UK over migrant deaths

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(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

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By Ardee Napolitano and Lucien Libert

CALAIS, France/ZAGREB (Reuters) -France said on Thursday it was mobilising reservists and beefing up sea rescue operations as London and Paris traded blame over the deaths of 27 migrants trying to reach Britain in an inflatable dinghy.

The migrants – including a child – drowned when their dinghy deflated in the Channel on Wednesday, one of many such risky journeys attempted each year in rickety, overloaded boats as people flee poverty and conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.

The deaths have created more animosity between countries already at odds over Brexit, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying France was at fault and French Interior Minister Gerald accusing Britain of “bad immigration management”.

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.”

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.

SENSITIVE POLITICAL ISSUE

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.

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.

“We have had difficulty persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves,” Johnson said.

Britain repeated an offer to have joint British-French patrols off the French coast near Calais.

“I’ve offered to work with France to put more officers on the ground and do absolutely whatever is necessary to secure the area so that vulnerable people do not risk their lives by getting into unseaworthy boats,” interior minister Priti Patel said.

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.

France will invite interior ministers from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain, as well as the European Commission, to a meeting on Sunday in Calais, the prime minister’s office 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 heightened security at the Eurotunnel undersea rail link, which has pushed migrants to try to make 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.

“We need to address illegal migration upstream and before people reach the French coast,” he said.

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.

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