"Evil business" turns the English Channel into a cemetery

"Evil business" turns the English Channel into a cemetery

British and French leaders have ramped up a war of words over dangerous crossings of the English Channel after at least 27 people died making the sea journey Wednesday, bringing to a head simmering tensions in the migration crisis.

As CNN notes, ministers from both sides of the Channel on Thursday laid blame with their counterparts after dozens of people -- including a pregnant woman -- drowned in bitterly cold waters off the French coast when their inflatable vessel bound for Britain sank. It is one of the largest losses of life in the English Channel in recent years.

The dead include 17 men, seven women, and three young people who "could be teenagers," according to the French prosecutor's office. One of the first rescue personnel to arrive at the scene, Charles Devos of the Société Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer (SNSM), said he found the dead body of a pregnant woman.

The majority of the victims were Iraqi citizens. Likewise, Iraqi Kurds appear to be among the victims. French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson both expressed horror at the tragedy, with Macron saying his country would not let the Channel become a graveyard. The leaders agreed to step up joint efforts to prevent the migrant crossings - which have increased dramatically this year - but also accused each other of not doing enough.

In a phone call on Wednesday night, Macron went further and urged Johnson to stop politicizing the migrant crisis for domestic political gain. Politicians of lower rank also exchanged mutual accusations.

 the Member of Parliament for Dover, England, where many migrants arrive from France, told CNN that the deaths in the Channel were "entirely foreseeable," and cast the problem as a border policing issue: "This was an entirely foreseeable tragedy that sooner or later one of these boats would capsize and people would die," Natalie Elphicke said. "The French are standing by where people are getting into boats and they're not stopping them. That's where the policy needs to change, on the French side."

Meanwhile French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin urged more support from European neighbors, saying that France cannot be the "only ones who can fight against smugglers." "We are saying this to our Belgian friends ... We are saying this to our German friends... And we are saying this to our English friends, that they must help us to fight against the smugglers who are international, who play with the borders," Darmanin said.

Asked why the UK attracts so many illegal migrants, Darmanin pointed to Britain's methods of managing migration and its thriving labor market. "There's obviously mismanagement of immigration in Britain," he said.

In the coming days, Darmanin will be holding meetings on better preventing "arrivals on French soil" coming from southern, northern and eastern migration routes. Macron said France would continue to use drones and reservists in response to the situation -- and seek extra mobilization from UK forces. Both France and the UK must work together dismantling the smugglers' networks, he said.

The UK's Immigration Minister Kevin Foster, meanwhile, told the BBC on Thursday that his government was also determined to "smash" the "really evil business model" of people-smuggling. That included looking to increase penalties for smuggling to life in prison, and improve "safe" immigration routes directly from zones of conflict or refugee camps, he said. Foster added that the UK has started paying France $72 million in installments to tackle the crisis.

A deadly crossing

Five people-smugglers have now been arrested in connection with Wednesday's deadly sea crossing. One of the smugglers arrested on Wednesday night had "German license plates" and "bought these boats in Germany." The two survivors from the tragedy are Somali and Iraqi nationals who suffered "serious hypothermia" and were transferred to hospital in Calais, northern France.

The narrow waterway between Britain and France is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Refugees and migrants fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty in the world's poorest or war-torn countries risk the dangerous crossing, often in dinghies unfit for the voyage and at the mercy of people smugglers, hoping to claim asylum or economic opportunities in Britain.

Darmanin said the migrants' dinghy had collapsed, and when rescuers had arrived it was "deflated like an inflatable garden pool".

Despite Wednesday's tragedy, desperate people continue to make the perilous journey across the Channel. One group in life jackets and blankets were seen arriving at Dover on Thursday morning.

Migrants once sought to smuggle themselves aboard the trucks that regularly crossed the Channel on ferries or by rail from France. But in recent years that route has become more expensive, with people-smugglers charging thousands of euros for each attempt.

So far this year, more than 25,700 people have crossed the English Channel to Britain in small boats, according to data compiled by PA Media news agency -- three times the total for the whole of 2020. On Wednesday alone, French authorities rescued 106 people adrift in various boats in the Channel, and more than 200 people made the crossing. Earlier this month, French sports retailer Decathlon announced it would stop selling kayaks in some stores in northern France, in a bid to prevent people using them to make the dangerous sea crossing to England.