Boris Johnson tells France to ‘step up’ and stop smugglers after 27 migrants die in Channel

France must “step up” and stop migrants crossing the Channel, Boris Johnson demanded on Wednesday night, after at least 27 people died off the coast of Calais trying to reach Britain.

The bodies of dozens of migrants including five women and a young girl were found floating in the sea after their flimsy boat, likened to a “blow-up paddling pool in a garden”, capsized and sank six miles off the coast of Calais in rough seas and cold weather. 

The dinghy, which was hit by a large ship, thought to be a cargo vessel, according to regional paper La Voix du Nord and TV station France 3, is feared to have been carrying more than 40 people.

The toll was originally recorded as 31 but was downgraded to 27 late on Wednesday night by the French interior ministry as rescuers searched for missing migrants. 

Earlier, Gerald Darmanin, the French interior minister, said at a press conference in Calais that only two migrants had been saved from the boat.

The tragedy happened on another day of chaotic scenes in the Channel, with dozens of boats crossing as migrants rushed to make the dangerous crossing ahead of winter storms which are expected to sweep in this weekend.

Boris Johnson convened an emergency Cobra meeting on Wednesday night amid anger among senior government figures over the lack of French action in recent weeks, despite repeated warnings over the potential loss of life.

After chairing the meeting on the accident, Mr Johnson said the deaths were “appalling” and “underscored how dangerous” it was to cross the Channel, but also showed the efforts to halt the record surge of migrants crossing the Channel “haven’t been enough”.

Mr Johnson spoke with Mr Macron on Wednesday night in which they agreed the need for joint action, and that it was “vital to keep all options on the table to stop these lethal crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs behind them”.

Offer to put UK officers on French beaches

The Prime Minister said the Government, which is providing £54 million to the French for extra police, would increase its support, suggesting he backed joint patrols on France’s beaches to intercept migrants before they set sail.

“Our offer is to increase our support but also to work together with our partners on the beaches concerned, on the launching grounds for these boats. That’s something I hope will be acceptable now in view of what has happened,” he said.

“We have had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that the situation deserves. I understand the difficulties that countries face but we want to do more together.”

President Emmanuel Macron said France would not allow the Channel to become a “cemetery” as he called on his EU counterparts to strengthen resources for the European Frontex border force to stop migrants entering the bloc. 

Calling for an emergency meeting of European ministers, he said: “It is Europe at its deepest level – humanism, respect for the dignity of each person, that is in mourning following the death of 31 migrants off the coast of Calais.” Mr Macron made his comments before the death toll was later downgraded to 27.

Migrant boat capsize in English Channel

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, revealed this week that she was in talks with the French for joint sea patrols to intercept the boats but that the French had rejected UK offers of Border Force and police officers being deployed to France’s beaches.

However, on Wednesday night she tweeted: “We will continue to intensify all cooperation with France and other European partners to prevent migrants embarking on these deadly journeys.”

‘We have to work together’

At a press conference in Calais, Mr Darmanin said he would be discussing with the French prime minister the need for extra resources but said Britain also had to increase its support, claiming the funds from the UK “remain minimal” compared to what the French were committing.

He said: “We have to work together, two major countries that are friends. We have to fight against these traffickers. Sadly our differences in legislation sometimes means there’s a ‘slight lack of cooperation’.”

He disclosed 255 migrants reached the UK on Wednesday, including about 40 in the boat at Boulogne who were allowed into the sea by a French police car with at least two officers inside appearing to do nothing. They landed at around 2.45pm in Dungeness.

But Mr Darmanin claimed 671 migrants were prevented from putting to sea after 780 police and gendarmes were deployed across the northern French coast. 

Four smugglers suspected of being directly linked to the sunken boat had been arrested and would face fast-track trials, he added.

Jean-Marc Puissesseau, the president and chairman of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, accused the smugglers of being murderers, adding: “The poor migrants who have spent months and months to come to here, and who die so close to their dream. I don’t know what to do really.”

More than 25,700 migrants have reached the UK so far this year, treble the number for the whole of 2020. November has been the busiest month on record with more than 6,000 crossing and two of highest daily totals of 1,185 and 1,131 migrants.

Monthly illegal channel crossings (2021 v 2020)

Former minister Tim Loughton, MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, and a member of the home affairs committee, said the French had been able to “turn a blind eye” to the numbers crossing because there had been so few casualties until now.

“This might get them to wake up to the fact that, by allowing these people to go on a highly dangerous journey particularly at this time of year with unsafe weather, there are consequences,” he said.

“There are some serious questions that they have to address as to why they have allowed this dangerous trade to go on under their noses without taking practical measures. The result is that we have our first major fatalities. It is a miracle that this hasn’t happened before.”

Craig Mackinlay, MP for South Thanet, said the pictures on Wednesday of police watching as a group of people smugglers put an extra-large dinghy to sea raised questions over whether the French were turning a blind eye.

“My call is for France to properly prevent beach launchings and if they’re incapable of doing so, then ask for UK assistance. My fear is this will be the first of many tragedies across the winter period. This dangerous enterprise must be stopped.”

‘The French are not saving lives’

Tony Smith, the former director general of the Border Force, said it was tragic that two civilised countries had failed to reach an agreement that could end the crossings through joint patrols returning the migrants to France.

“We can stop this at source if we work together,” he said. “That’s perfectly feasible. The French don’t take that view. They are not saving lives. They are basically allowing unsafe boats to sail off into territorial waters. For me, it is squarely on the shoulders of the French.” 

Natalie Elphicke, the Dover MP, said: “This is an absolute tragedy. It underlines why saving lives at sea starts by stopping the boats entering the water in the first place.”

However, Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais, said: “This is the fault of Boris Johnson who is forcing our country to endure this set-up because he doesn’t have the courage himself to assume responsibilities in his country.”

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