Mourners stood in a tight circle in a park in Calais and offered prayers and a moment of silence for the men, women and children who died on Wednesday trying to cross the English Channel in a dingy. At least 27 drowned in what police said was the worst migrant disaster to date on the Channel.
One woman sang a rendition of Amazing Grace as candles flickered around a large banner marking the names of those who lost their lives. Then the group of about 100 people solemnly walked to a nearby beach and threw flowers into the sea.
“I have a lot of anger at what’s happening,” said Maria Mezdour, who works with refugee children in Calais on France’s northern coast, which has become a focal point for migrant crossings. “It’s heartbreaking. But it’s not the first time and it will not be the last.”
Wednesday’s drownings have shaken people in both Britain and France and sent officials scrambling to find a solution to the growing crisis. This year alone more than 25,700 people have made the treacherous crossing through one of the world’s busiest seaways, according to figures from Britain’s Home Office. That’s three times higher than in all of 2020 and, on one day alone this month, 1,100 migrants had to be rescued by British coast guard boats.
French President Emmanuel Macron vowed Thursday that France “will not let the Channel become a cemetery” but he also called for other European countries to help combat people smuggling. Ministers from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Britain will meet on Sunday in Calais to discuss measures to break smuggling networks.
Meanwhile British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has blamed France for not doing enough to stop the vessels and, on Thursday, he proposed joint patrols along the French coastline. “We’ve had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves,” Mr. Johnson said.
As the leaders traded barbs there were few indication in Calais that the drownings had deterred anyone else from making the voyage. By Thursday morning, just hours after the disaster, more than a dozen small crafts had made their way to Dover carrying around 40 migrants in total.
“You have to keep trying when it’s your dream,” said a 19-year old man from Sudan who spoke to The Globe and Mail. He’s been living in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Calais for three months and he’s tried several times to make the Channel crossing only to be thwarted by the police. The Globe is not identifying him because he feared reprisals. Despite the drownings, he plans to try again. “You could die here,” he said Thursday, pointing to his flimsy tent. “So why not try?”
The Port of Calais has long been a jumping-off point for migrants hoping to get to Britain, but the numbers started to swell in 2014 when refugees from Syria began streaming across European borders. French police have dismantled several camps in Calais where thousands of migrants lived in squalid conditions, but many smaller settlements remain in the city and along the coast.
For years migrants tried to stow away on trucks or trains heading through the Channel Tunnel to Dover. That became more difficult as security around the port tightened and French police increased patrols. Brexit and the pandemic also decreased vehicle traffic last year.
As a result, many migrants turned to the sea and began loading into dinghies or rickety crafts to make the 30-kilometre journey, which can take up to 11 hours. Smugglers have also moved in and developed sophisticated networks that prey on migrants and charge up to €1,000 (about $1,400) for a spot in a vessel.
Britain has frequently blamed France for failing to stem the flow of migrants. Last summer, Home Secretary Priti Patel criticized French police for not intervening to stop migrants from setting sail and she threatened to order British coast guard boats to push the vessels back into French waters. The British government has also said it would pay France £54-million (about $91-million) to increase police patrols and boost aerial surveillance.
On Thursday, Mr. Johnson wrote Mr. Macron a letter that called for joint patrols to prevent boats leaving French shores as well as increased deployment of radar and sonar to track vessels. He also proposed an agreement with France to take back migrants who cross the Channel. “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,” Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Macron has yet to respond to the letter, but French officials have already rejected many of the proposals and blamed Britain for its lax immigration policy.
Pierre-Henri Dumont, the member of the National Assembly for Calais, said it would take thousands of officers to effectively monitor the 150-kilometre stretch of coastline most affected. Joint patrols would also raise sovereignty issues, he added. “I’m not sure the British people would accept it the other way round, with the French army patrolling the British shore,” Mr. Dumont told the BBC on Thursday.
France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said Thursday that French police have arrested more than 1,500 people smugglers this year and broken up 44 smuggling networks. He added that police have also arrested five men connected to Wednesday’s drownings.
The Interior Minister took a shot at Britain’s immigration system and argued that the country wasn’t as vigilant about illegal employment as France. That only encouraged migrants, he added. “English employers use this labour to make the things that the English manufacture and consume,” Mr. Darmanin said. “We say ‘reform your labour market.’ ”
People like Marine Tondelier are tired of all the political finger pointing. She was among the mourners in Calais on Thursday and she blames both sides for not making it easier for migrants to seek asylum. “France and the U.K., they are always saying that they are such rich countries, such humane countries. So they must show that,” she said. “They could start by showing that they care.”
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