U.K.-France tensions rise over deaths of at least 27 migrants in English Channel

The deaths of at least 27 people in the English Channel is fuelling tensions between the U.K. and France over how to stop migrants from crossing the world's busiest waterway in small boats.

Countries spar over joint patrols in English Channel

A group of people thought to be migrants from France are brought to Dover, England, by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution on Thursday, a day after at least 27 people died when their boat sank while trying to cross the English Channel. (Gareth Fuller/PA/The Associated Press)

The deaths of at least 27 people in the English Channel is fuelling tensions between the U.K. and France over how to stop migrants from crossing the world's busiest waterway in small boats.

Despite a pledge from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron that they would "do everything possible" to stop smugglers from endangering lives, politicians on both sides of the channel are already blaming their counterparts for failing to prevent Wednesday's tragedy.

British officials expressed frustration that France has rejected their offer to bolster enforcement along the channel coast by sending British police officers to conduct joint patrols with their French counterparts. But Macron said his country needed "more responsible partners" in the U.K. and the European Union to put an end to people crossing illegally. 

"We are completely mobilized along our coast," Macron told reporters during a visit to Croatia. "We are obviously going to maintain this maximum presence … (and) ask for additional mobilization from the British. Because I remind you, when it comes to this, we are holding the border for the British."

Pregnant women, children among victims

Children and pregnant women were among those who died when their small boat sank in an attempted crossing of the Channel, a French government official said Thursday.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said five suspected smugglers have been arrested for their apparent involvement in what was the deadliest migration tragedy to date on the dangerous sea lane.

In their immediate response to the sinking, French authorities gave slightly differing figures on the numbers of dead, from at least 27 to 31. The figure that Darmanin used Thursday morning on RTL radio was 27.

French police officers patrol the beach of Wimereux, near Calais, France, on Thursday. A French government official said five suspected smugglers have been arrested for their apparent involvement in what was the deadliest migration tragedy to date in the channel. (Francois Lo Presti/AFP/Getty Images)

Wednesday's tragedy comes amid an increase in the number of migrants trying to cross the channel in inflatable boats and other small craft after the COVID-19 pandemic limited air and ship travel and Britain's departure from the European Union curtailed co-operation with neighbouring countries.

More than 23,000 people have already entered the U.K. on small boats this year, up from 8,500 last year and just 300 in 2018, according to data compiled by Parliament.

In June, the British government agreed to pay 54 million pounds ($91 million Cdn) to help France combat people smuggling. U.K. authorities have also proposed joint patrols, but France has repeatedly rejected the offer because of concerns it would undermine French sovereignty.

Johnson sent Macron and the EU leadership a letter Thursday proposing joint sea, air and land patrols starting as soon as next week. Johnson also proposed an agreement allowing Britain to send back migrants to France.

Brexit fallout

The tensions are at least partly the result of Britain's departure from the EU, which took effect at the beginning of last year.

When it left the bloc, Britain also exited a system of "solidarity and burden-sharing" that provided for intra-European co-operation on asylum and other migration issues, said Nando Sigona, professor of international migration and forced displacement at the University of Birmingham. At the same time, smugglers have realized the channel is a lucrative route for migrants and are stepping up their efforts with bigger boats.

A damaged inflatable boat is pictured on the shore in Wimereux on Thursday. Wednesday's tragedy comes amid an increase in the number of migrants trying to cross the channel in such inflatable boats. (Michel Spingler/The Associated Press)

"There was a mechanism in place that would regulate the way that the mobility of asylum seekers is managed within the European Union," he said. "Now the border has become a hard border in a sense, and there is not yet in place a new system that is able to manage and govern that kind of mobility."

But British newspapers took aim at France, publishing images of French police watching migrants launch inflatable boats just hours before the deadly sinking Wednesday.

"Shameful," proclaimed the Sun. "You're letting gangs get away with murder," said the Daily Mail.

"Rather disappointingly, yesterday we saw the French police in footage standing by while boats got together and migrants got in them and they went off the shore in France," Natalie Elphicke, a lawmaker from the governing Conservative Party, told The Associated Press.

"Britain has offered to help with people and resources, and I hope the French will now take up that offer and other European countries will come to France's aid."

'Completely preventable'

Pierre-Henri Dumont, a French lawmaker from the channel port of Calais, warned that the British proposal wouldn't solve the problem along 300 kilometres of coastline that must be constantly monitored.

"I think it's time for both our governments to stop blaming each other and to try and talk to each other and find real solutions, not a crazy solution such as having more and more people patrolling, sending the British Army to the French shore," Dumont said. "That is not acceptable and will not change anything."

Activists and members of associations defending migrants' rights light candles in front of a banner reading '309 dead on the France UK border since 1999' during a gathering outside the port of Calais on Thursday. (Rafael Yaghobzadeh/The Associated Press)

Britain has proposed tough new rules to discourage channel crossings — including the idea of setting up a centre to process asylum seekers in another country — but they face stiff opposition in Parliament.

Rather than preventing the exploitation of migrants, these kinds of policies are forcing people to risk their lives in small boats, according to the Joint Council of Welfare for Immigrants, a 54-year-old organization created to protect immigrant rights.

"This tragedy was completely predictable, indeed it was predicted and it was completely preventable," Zoe Gardner, the council's policy manager, told the BBC. "This has to be a time for our government to mark a turning point."