France calls emergency migration talks after English Channel tragedy

Negotiations in Calais with UK, Germany, Belgium and Netherlands are scheduled for Sunday

France has called emergency talks with Britain and its EU neighbours after the deaths of 27 people, thought to be mostly from Iraq and Iran, in the English Channel when a flimsy boat sank off its northern coast.

The summit on Sunday of interior ministers in Calais, close to where the migrants set off on their doomed journey, will take place amid calls for greater European co-operation against the smuggling gangs blamed for the tragedy.

Wednesday’s disaster was the worst on record in the Channel and came after months of regular crossings by migrants in small boats, raising the political temperature on both sides of the water.

Britain, which finances patrols on France’s northern coast, told Paris to “step up” those efforts and suggested that UK border police should be sent to join them.

But Pierre-Henri Dumont, the MP for Calais, dismissed the “crazy” proposal that he said would “not change anything” along the vast shoreline.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he had written to French President Emanuel Macron on Thursday to set out five steps the two countries could take to avoid the deaths of more migrants trying to cross English Channel.

Mr Johnson said the steps included joint patrols to prevent more boats from leaving French beaches, using sensors and radar, and immediate work on a returns agreement with France and a similar deal with the EU.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was requesting “extra help” from the UK on Thursday.

“We are going to ask for extra help from the British because all these men and these women don’t want to stay in France," Mr Macron said during a visit to Croatia.

“We tell them they’re obviously able to do so and there are centres in Calais and Dunkirk where they can go, but we’re going to reinforce in fact saving them at sea.”

French Prime Minister Jean Castex sought to shift the blame from France by saying that most migrants heading for the Channel were only briefly on its territory.

The five people smugglers arrested after the disaster were stopped at the border with Belgium and had bought some of their equipment in Germany, he said.

“It is therefore a problem requiring an intergovernmental and European approach,” the prime minister’s office said.

The talks should “make it possible to define the ways and means of strengthening police, judicial and humanitarian co-operation”, his office said.

Mr Castex has invited immigration ministers from the UK, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and the EU to the Calais summit.

Priti Patel, the UK’s Home Secretary, likewise called for international efforts but asked for an “honest assessment” from France on whether its patrols were falling short.

Ms Patel will meet French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin over the weekend to discuss the migrant crisis.

Home Office officials and law enforcement officers will also travel to Paris on Friday “to intensify joint co-operation and intelligence-sharing”, the British government said.

Ms Patel spoke to Mr Darmanin on Thursday to “put forward plans for greater collaboration and innovation in stopping these deadly crossings”.

The government said the ministers “underlined the need for deeper co-operation on stopping the Channel crossings and the need to work closely with European partners”.

The UK has extended £54 million ($72m) in financial support but has made its frustration clear with Paris that so many people are still finding a way across.

It exacerbates tension between London and Paris over the fallout from Brexit and a submarine deal between the UK, US and Australia.

Ms Patel said Britain was ready to offer joint patrols as well as more intelligence co-operation and “enhanced surveillance”.

“We absolutely encourage them and urge them to take these offers forward,” she told the UK Parliament on Thursday.

France has previously rejected joint patrols and the idea was met with derision by some French politicians.

Mr Macron, who is up for re-election next year, insisted that French security forces were “mobilised day and night” on its northern coast.

He said hundreds of attempted departures for Britain were stopped on Wednesday through a combination of drones and army reservists.

French investigators were working to identify the 27 victims and establish why their flimsy vessel deflated and took on water.

Mr Castex’s office promised that “those responsible for this tragedy will answer for their actions” in court.

Despite the disaster, more migrants continued to try the crossing on Thursday, with some arriving on lifeboats on the English coast.

Other migrants are still living in tents in northern France, waiting for human traffickers to pick them up and take them to the coast.

While Ms Patel has promised to stamp out illegal immigration to Britain, critics say her hard line is what prevents migrants from reaching the UK safely.

A bill making its way through the UK Parliament would set tougher prison sentences for illegal immigration and speed up the removal of failed asylum seekers.

“We must provide safe passage for asylum seekers so they don’t risk their lives in the hands of despicable traffickers,” said opposition Labour MP Louise Haigh.

Updated: November 25th 2021, 8:50 PM
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