(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 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 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 at home 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 most migrants on its soil and that increased 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 often cross via Belgium before reaching France’s northern shores, on their way to Britain, French officials said.
France will invite interior ministers from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK, as well as the European Commission, to a joint meeting on Sunday in Calais, the prime minister’s office 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, where currents are strong and the water is cold.
With relations fraught by years of tension over Brexit and immigration, much of the focus on Thursday was on who should bear responsibility, even if both sides vowed to work together to find 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, from where many migrants take to the water.
Paris has previously 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.
“We’re prepared to offer support on the ground, we’re prepared to offer resources,” Immigration Minister Kevin Foster told BBC TV. “We’re clear: we don’t just see this as an issue that France needs to deal with, but one that we want to work together with France and our wider European partners…”
‘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.
“The smugglers are more and more reckless, criminal, launching at sea poor innocent people who want to reach England at all costs without knowing the sea.”
Reuters witnessed one group of migrants emerging from the sand dunes near Calais before piling into an inflatable dinghy. They were seen landing hours later in Dungeness, southern England.
Before Wednesday’s disaster, 14 people had drowned this year trying to reach Britain, a local maritime prefecture official said. In 2020, seven people died and two disappeared, while in 2019 four died.