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UK-France tensions rise over the deaths of at least 27 migrants in the English Channel

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The deaths of at least 27 people in the English Channel are fueling tensions between the UK and France over how to stop migrants from crossing the world’s busiest waterway in small boats.

Despite a promise from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron that they would “do everything possible” to stop smugglers from risking their lives, politicians on both sides of the canal are already blaming their counterparts for failing to prevent the tragedy. of Wednesday.

British officials expressed disappointment that France has rejected their offer to strengthen 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 UK and the European Union to end illegal crossroads of people.

“We are fully mobilized along our coast,” Macron told reporters during a visit to Croatia. “We will definitely maintain this maximum presence (and) demand additional mobilization from the British. Because I remind you, when it comes to this, we are keeping the border for the British.”

Among the victims were pregnant women and children

Children and pregnant women were among those who died when their small boat sank in an attempt to cross the Channel, a French government official said on 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 in the dangerous sea lane.

In their immediate response to the sinking, French authorities gave slightly different figures for the death toll, from at least 27 to 31. The figure Darman used on 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 canal. (Francois Lo Presti / AFP / Getty Images)

Wednesday’s tragedy comes amid an increase in the number of migrants trying to cross the canal by inflated boats and other small vehicles as the COVID-19 pandemic restricted air and boat travel and Britain’s exit from the European Union limited cooperation with countries. neighbors.

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

In June, the British government agreed to pay milionë 54 million ($ 91 million Cdn) to help France fight human smuggling. UK authorities have also proposed joint patrols, but France has repeatedly rejected the offer due to concerns it would undermine French sovereignty.

Johnson sent a letter to Macron and the EU leadership on Thursday proposing joint naval, air and ground patrols starting next week. Johnson also proposed an agreement allowing Britain to return immigrants to France.

Consequences of Brexit

Tensions are at least partly the result of Britain’s exit from the EU, which took effect early last year.

When it left the bloc, Britain also emerged from a system of “solidarity and burden-sharing” that provided for inter-European co-operation on asylum and other migration issues, said Nando Sigona, professor of international migration and forced relocation at the University of Birmingham. At the same time, smugglers have realized the canal is a lucrative route for migrants and are stepping up their efforts with larger boats.

A damaged inflatable boat was photographed off the coast of Wimereux on Thursday. Wednesday’s tragedy comes amid an increase in the number of migrants trying to cross the canal with such inflatable boats. (Michel Spingler / The Associated Press)

“There was a mechanism that would regulate how the mobility of asylum seekers is managed within the European Union,” he said. “Now the border has become a difficult border in a way and there is still no new system to be able to manage and govern that kind of mobility.”

But British newspapers targeted France, publishing images of French police watching immigrants launching inflatable boats just hours before the deadly sinking on Wednesday.

“Shameful,” the Sun declared. “You are letting the gangs go away with murder,” the Daily Mail said.

“More disappointingly, yesterday we saw French police in the footage standing nearby as boats joined and migrants boarded them and they left the coast in France,” Natalie Elphicke, a lawmaker from the ruling Conservative Party, told the Associated Press.

“Britain has offered to help with people and resources and I hope the French accept this offer and other European countries will come to France’s aid.”

‘Completely preventable’

Pierre-Henri Dumont, a French lawmaker from the port of the Calais canal, warned that the British proposal would not solve the problem along the 300-kilometer coastline that needs to be constantly monitored.

“I think it’s time for both our governments to stop blaming each other and try to talk to each other and find real solutions, not a crazy solution like patrolling more and more people, sending the British army on the French coast. ” tha Dumont. “This is not acceptable and will not change anything.”

Activists and members of immigrant rights groups light candles in front of a banner reading “309 dead on the border with France in the UK since 1999” during a rally outside the port of Calais on Thursday. (Rafael Yaghobzadeh / The Associated Press)

Britain has proposed tough new rules to discourage canal crossings, including the idea of ​​setting up a center to process asylum seekers in another country, but they face fierce opposition in Parliament.

Instead of preventing the exploitation of immigrants, these kinds of policies are forcing people to risk their lives in small boats, according to the Joint Welfare Council for Immigrants, a 54-year-old organization set up to protect the rights of immigrants.

“This tragedy was completely predictable, it was actually predictable and it was completely preventable,” Zoe Gardner, the council’s policy manager, told the BBC. “This should be a time for our government to mark a turning point.”

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