Helicopters buzzed over the waves, and vessels were already searching the cold water as French maritime rescue volunteer Charles Devos added his boat to aid in the hectic search for a flimsy migrant vessel based in the English Channel, killing at least 27 people.
What Devos found was cruel. But no, he later admitted sadly, completely unexpectedly. As migrants often set off in hundreds in flotillas of unseaworthy and congested vessels into the busy shipping lane of large cargo ships and often surrounded by treacherous weather, waves and currents, Devos had long feared tragedy would follow.
It happened this week with the deadliest migration accident to date on the dangerous stretch of sea that separates France and Britain.
“We picked up six floating bodies. We passed an inflatable vessel that had been emptied of air. The little bit of air that was left kept it floating,” Devos told reporters.
“I was expecting it a bit because I wanted to say, ‘It ends in a drama,'” he said.
France and Britain on Thursday appealed for European aid, promising intensified efforts to combat human trafficking networks and also swapping guilt and barbs in the wake of Wednesday’s deadly shipwreck, which shed light on the scale and complexity of Europe’s migration problems.
The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron and the EU leadership on Thursday, proposing joint naval, air and land patrols starting as early as next week. France has opposed the idea. Johnson also proposed an agreement allowing Britain to send migrants back to France.
Macron appealed to European neighbors to do more to stop illegal migration to France, saying that when migrants reach French shores hoping to move on to Britain, “it is already too late.”
Macron said France is deploying army drones as part of an intensified effort to patrol its northern coastline and help rescue migrants at sea. But he also said there was a need for greater collective action, referring to France as a “transit country” for migrants tied to Britain.
“We need to strengthen cooperation with Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, but also the United Kingdom and the (EU) Commission,” he said during a visit to Croatia. “We need stronger European cooperation.”
Migration is an explosive issue in Europe, where leaders often accuse each other of not doing enough to either prevent migrants from entering their countries or from continuing to other nations.
Ministers from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom and EU officials will meet on Sunday to discuss increasing efforts to crack down on migrant smuggling networks, Macron’s government said.
They meet in Calais, one of the French coastal cities, where migrants gather and look for ways to cross to the British coast visible from France on clear days. Coastal communities on both sides of the canal were toppled on Thursday by the terrible load of the sink.
“Unfortunately, this was something that could have been foreseen, a horror scenario that we had feared and feared,” said Ludovic Hochart, a Calais police officer.
Across the canal, in the British port of Dover, small business owner Paula Elliot said: “It’s awful that people have lost their lives.”
“The vessels they take travel in are not fit for purpose,” she said. “They probably do not understand how difficult the journey is going to be, and especially at this time of year it is so much colder than in the summer.”
Devos, the volunteer rescuer, told reporters in comments broadcast by coastal radio station Delta FM that the flimsy vessels used by migrants for the crossing are increasingly congested, with as many as 50 people on board.
Macron described the dead in Wednesday’s shipwreck as “victims of the worst system, that of smugglers and human traffickers.”
France has never had so many officers mobilized against illegal migration, and its commitment is “total,” he said.
An ever-increasing number of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere are risking the perilous journey from France in hopes of gaining asylum or finding better opportunities in Britain.
The crossings have tripled this year compared to 2020. Shipwrecks in the order of magnitude seen on Wednesday are not uncommon in the Mediterranean, where around 1,600 people have just died or disappeared this year, according to UN estimates.
The French prosecution, which is tasked with investigating the shipwreck, said the dead included 17 men, seven women and two boys and a girl believed to be teenagers. Judges investigated potential charges of murder, unintentional wounding, aiding and abetting illegal migration and criminal conspiracy, prosecutors said.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said children and pregnant women were among the dead. Two survivors of the shipwreck were treated for hypothermia. One is Iraqi, the other Somali, Darmanin said. He said authorities are working to establish the nationality of the victims.
On Friday, the minister canceled a meeting with his British counterpart Priti Patel in light of the latest criticism of France regarding the issue of illegal migrants, which Johnson dealt with, French media reported on Friday.
Destabilized by shock and sadness, relief workers and residents of Calais kept a quiet vigil Thursday night in the port city to honor the dead as they crouched under a cold rain and lit candles in their memory.
Macron’s government promised to bring those responsible for the tragedy to justice and put pressure on investigators. Darmanin announced the arrests of five alleged smugglers, who he said are suspected of being involved in the shipwreck. He gave no details. The prosecution, which is investigating the deaths, confirmed five arrests since Wednesday, but said they do not appear to be linked to the investigation.
Darmanin said a suspected smuggler who was arrested overnight was driving a vehicle registered in Germany and had purchased inflatable boats there.
He said criminal groups in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK were behind human trafficking networks. He called on these countries to cooperate better with smugglers, saying they do not always respond fully to French judicial requests for information.
“Britain and France must work together. In reality, we must no longer be the only ones capable of fighting the smugglers,” the minister said.
In their immediate response to the shipwreck, the French authorities initially gave different figures on the number of dead, from at least 27 to 31. The figure that Darmanin used on Thursday morning on RTL radio was 27.
The minister also took a look at the British government’s migration policy, saying that France expels more people living in the country without legal permission than Britain. Illegal migration from the northern coasts of France to Britain has long been a source of tension between the two countries, although their police forces are working together to try to stop crossings. The question is often used by politicians on both sides pushing for an anti-migration agenda.
Darmanin also suggested that by employing people living illegally in the country, British employers are encouraging illegal migration to English coasts.
“English employers use this labor force to manufacture the things that the English manufacture and consume,” he said. “We say ‘reform your labor market’.”
British officials, meanwhile, are criticizing France for rejecting their offer of British police and border guards to conduct joint patrols along the Channel coast with French police.
Macron was in favor of an immediate boost in funding for the EU’s border agency, Frontex, according to his office.
“France will not allow the canal to become a cemetery,” Macron said.