Three children and seven women, at least one who was pregnant, are said to be among 27 people who drowned in the Channel while trying to reach Britain in an incident that has triggered calls for an overhaul of how the migrant route is policed.
The migrants, the majority of whom are believed to be from Iraq and Somalia, perished at sea in busy shipping lanes, and reports from the French side said the boat was struck by a container ship.
The death toll from the tragedy was initially reported to be 34 on Wednesday but was later revised down to 27. The dead were said to include 17 men, seven women, and two boys and a girl thought to be teenagers.
France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin suggested that more than one of the female victims was pregnant and that more than one child were among the deceased.
He said the boat which sank had been very flimsy, likening it to “a pool you blow up in your garden” and said two survivors, from Iraq and Somalia, had been treated for severe hypothermia.
He claimed migrants are “often attracted” by the British labour market, which allows them to be exploited by smugglers.
“There were pregnant women, children who died yesterday on that boat … and for a few thousand euros they promise them ‘El Dorado in England,’” he told French radio network RTL. “And, sadly, this has been repeated every day for the last 20 years.”
Mr Darmanin said the boat the migrants were travelling in had been bought in Germany and the smuggler was driving a German-registered vehicle.
The bodies of the victims were taken to the northern French city of Lille for post-mortem examinations to be carried out.
Paris has called a meeting of European officials to coalesce action on migrants making their way to its shores bound for the UK. Mr Darmanin has called for Britain and other European countries to step up in the fight against smuggler networks. “France must stop being the only one to fight against smugglers,” he said.
Early on Thursday, the risky crossings continued as around 40 people were seen arriving in Dover, the BBC reported, as the mild weather and calm seas offered smugglers an opportunity to send off boats from French shores.
Wednesday’s tragedy was the highest recorded number of migrant deaths to happen in the Channel since the International Organisation for Migration began collecting data in 2014.
The small boat was allegedly struck by a container ship, according to La Voix du Nord, a newspaper in northern France, as it attempted to reach British shores.
Charles Devos, regional manager of lifeboat association SNSM, described seeing bodies floating around a boat as “very shocking” and “really dramatic”.
He said he recovered six people from the boat including a woman who said she was pregnant and a young man aged between 18 and 20. A pregnant woman was among six people rescued from a flimsy dingy by a French rescuers who were some of the first people on the scene.
Mr Macron reacted to the tragedy by vowing that the English Channel must not become a “cemetery” for those travelling in search of a new life. “It is Europe's deepest values — humanism, respect for the dignity of each person — that are in mourning.”
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired an emergency Cobra meeting with ministers in Downing Street to discuss how to stem the flow of migrant boats across the Channel.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said the UK had offered to send police to patrol beaches in northern France amid concern that French authorities are not doing enough to stop migrants from leaving.
Pierre-Henri Dumont, MP for Calais, dismissed the suggestions from London as a unilateral imposition, adding the French could not accept foreign police officers on their land.
“No that wouldn’t work,” he said. “To monitor the shore we will need thousands of people and there is also a question of sovereignty.
“I’m not sure if the British people would accept the other way around, if the French army was patrolling the British shore.”
He argued it takes only five to 10 minutes to launch a dinghy into the sea and said it would be impossible for police to prevent all crossings.
He said any migrants intercepted should be directed to “welcoming centres” and it should be mandatory for migrants to claim asylum in France, rather than voluntary.
He also said there should be the opportunity to apply for asylum in the UK without yet reaching the country.
Bruno Bonnell, an MP for President Macron’s centre-right En Marche party, said joint UK-France police patrols on beaches in northern France could work.
“I think that could be something that would probably help the situation and I would support that,” he said.
But he stressed it should not be used as “a way to twist the information once more pretending that the French people are turning their eyes” away from the small boats leaving beaches.
He said the UK and France should join forces to strike smuggling gangs which were at “the heart of the problem”.
“Those people take advantage of human beings, making them dream about paradise in the UK where they can work illegally with no pain,” he said.
Sylvie Bermann, former French ambassador to the UK, claimed the UK had become “very attractive for migrants” since Brexit, which happened on January 31 2020.
“It’s easier for them to find jobs because a lot of Europeans left after Brexit,” she said, adding that migrants had been “more eager” to reach the UK since it left the bloc.
However, asylum seekers in Britain are not normally allowed to work while they are awaiting the outcome of their application.
‘Emergency laws needed to stop boats’
Rear Admiral Chris Parry, former chairman of the UK government’s Maritime Management Organisation, has called for the UK to introduce emergency legislation to allow authorities to take greater action to stop migrant boats from landing on British shores.
He appeared to sympathise with the UK government on the issue, saying they are caught “between a rock and a hard place” due to the current laws.
He denied military support was needed to stop the boats but said the “humanitarian crisis” in the Channel warranted new laws and a joint task force between British and French authorities.
“We’re talking about emergency legislation here, emergency action to stop people getting killed and also to stop this grossly illegal trade in people,” he told Sky News.
He said sophisticated technology could be used to find migrants congregating on beaches and enable officials to stop them before they set off on their voyage.
“People who go to sea are putting themselves at risk and in danger and you wouldn’t expect ordinary citizens to do that in a responsible way, you shouldn’t expect people who want to be citizens of this country to do the same either,” he added.
Lord Alf Dubs, a Labour peer and prominent campaigner for refugees, called the deaths of 27 migrants “an appalling tragedy” but said it was “not an unforeseen one”.
He called on the government to change its policy in relation to unaccompanied minors who have relatives in Britain to allow them to safely and legally enter the county.
“The UK government needs to increase cooperation with our French neighbours,” he said. “And refugee children stranded in the EU, with family in the UK, should be reunited with their loved ones here, safely and swiftly.”
Lucy Morton, professional officer for ISU — The Union for Borders, Immigration & Customs, said if police find migrants attempting to cross to the UK illegally they are “simply let go to try again”.
Clare Moseley of Care 4 Calais, a charity helping migrants in the northern French port city, said less than 3 per cent of refugees in Europe come to Britain, while most stay in other European countries.
She said those who do try to go to the UK “have a very strong reason for doing so”, such as speaking English as a second language or having family ties there.
In an interview with Reuters, an Iraqi smuggler claimed to make £75,000 a year ($100,000) from his lucrative business transporting people to Europe.
He said boats his network uses would normally hold as little as five passengers but he and his fellow smugglers “strengthen them with metal rods and a motor so we can send more than 15 to 20 people on them”.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the most senior bishop in the Church of England, called for a better system based on “compassion, justice and co-operation across frontiers” following the “devastating loss of human life”.
Britain's immigration minister Kevin Foster said the UK had supplied a helicopter during Wednesday’s search for survivors in the Channel and that the country was prepared to send people to France to help deal with the current influx.
Asked on BBC Breakfast how the UK’s approach was likely to change after the tragedy, Mr Foster said: “The first thing, is working with France.
“We have offered resources, we are happy to support their operations on the beach.
“We have already agreed £54 million [$72m], we’re happy to look at doing more.
“We’re also prepared to offer resources beyond [that] — like yesterday, we deployed a helicopter at their request to help with the search and rescue operation, so we’re not just offering cash. It is in no one’s interest for this to continue.”
Mr Foster added: “We’re prepared to offer support on the ground, we’re prepared to offer resources, we’re prepared to offer, literally, people to go there and assist the French authorities.”