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English Channel tragedy: After dozens drown, England and France ramp up war of words

CNN logo CNN 11/25/2021 By Sheena McKenzie, Helen Regan, Xiaofei Xu, and Niamh Kennedy, CNN
A man wheels a gurney into a warehouse in the Port of Calais, France, where it is believed the bodies of migrants are being transported after recovery from a boat which capsized off the French coast with the loss of 31 lives on Wednesday. An emergency search was sparked when a fishing boat sounded the alarm after spotting several people in the sea off the coast of France. Authorities found 31 bodies and two survivors while one person was missing. Picture date: Wednesday November 24, 2021. (Photo by PA Images/Sipa USA) *** US Rights Only *** © PA/Sipa A man wheels a gurney into a warehouse in the Port of Calais, France, where it is believed the bodies of migrants are being transported after recovery from a boat which capsized off the French coast with the loss of 31 lives on Wednesday. An emergency search was sparked when a fishing boat sounded the alarm after spotting several people in the sea off the coast of France. Authorities found 31 bodies and two survivors while one person was missing. Picture date: Wednesday November 24, 2021. (Photo by PA Images/Sipa USA) *** US Rights Only ***

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.

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.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a press conference following a meeting with his Croatian counterpart in Zagreb on Thursday. © Denis Lovrovic/AFP/Getty Images French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a press conference following a meeting with his Croatian counterpart in Zagreb on Thursday.

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, France's Calais port director Jean-Marc Puissesseau told CNN. Likewise, Iraqi Kurds appear to be among the victims, the Prime Minister of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq said Thursday. Authorities are working to establish their identities, Masrour Barzani posted on Twitter, adding that "our thoughts are with their families."

Police seal off the area around the rescue operation at France's Calais harbor on November 24. © Kiran Ridley/Getty Images Police seal off the area around the rescue operation at France's Calais harbor on November 24.

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, according to a French readout of their conversation.

Johnson on Thursday said he had written to Macron to set out five steps he believes should be taken as soon as possible to avoid further deaths of people trying to cross the English Channel in small boats.

In a thread on Twitter, Johnson stated that both parties had acknowledged the "urgency of the situation." His proposal includes more joint patrols to prevent boats leaving French beaches, better intelligence sharing and immediate work on a bilateral returns agreement.

"An agreement with France to take back migrants who cross the Channel through this dangerous route would have an immediate and significant impact," Johnson said.

"If those who reach this country were swiftly returned the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be significantly reduced," Johnson added. "This would be the single biggest step we could take together to reduce the draw to Northern France and break the business model of criminal gangs."

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin speaks to the press in front of a hospital in Calais, northern France, after at least 27 people died off the city's coast. © Francois Lo Presti/AFP/Getty Images French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin speaks to the press in front of a hospital in Calais, northern France, after at least 27 people died off the city's coast.

Fight against smugglers

Earlier Thursday, 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 whose solution lay in France.

"This was an entirely foreseeable tragedy that sooner or later one of these boats would capsize and people would die," Natalie Elphicke told CNN near Dover's harbor Thursday.

"People are safe in France, and the best way to keep people safe is to keep them on shore, not in the hands of people smugglers in the middle of the Channel," she added.

The British politician added that 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, telling radio station RTL on Thursday 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, President Macron told reporters Thursday. By the time these migrants reach the English Channel it "is already too late" he said of the deadly crossing.

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, Darmanin told RTL Thursday. He added that one of the smugglers arrested on Wednesday night had "German license plates" and "bought these boats in Germany."

Darmanin said that 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," according to Reuters.

Despite Wednesday's tragedy, desperate people continue to make the perilous journey across the Channel. One group in life jackets and blankets were seen huddled together on board a lifeboat arriving at Dover on Thursday morning, the UK's Press Association reported.

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.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Masrour Barzani. He is the Prime Minister of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq.

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