British, French leaders trade blame for migrant Channel catastrophe

British and French officials have traded blame after 27 migrants died crossing the English Channel, as French President Emmanuel Macron demanded an emergency meeting of EU ministers over migration.

Five women, one young girl, and 21 other people died when their dinghy deflated as they made a perilous crossing on Wednesday (local time).

It was the biggest single loss of life in the Channel since data collection began in 2014, the International Organisation for Migration reported.

On Thursday, Mr Macron called for European leaders to come together, after they appeared to trade blame for the tragedy.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked and appalled” by the deaths and called on France to do more to deter people from attempting the crossing.

People trafficking gangs were “literally getting away with murder”, he said.

British immigration compliance minister Tom Pursglove said Mr Johnson had renewed a previous offer to send British border force officers for joint patrols with French officers.

Boris Johnson English Channel

Mr Johnson says efforts to stem the flow of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats “haven’t been enough”. Photo: AAP

He told BBC2 Newsnight that Mr Johnson and Mr Macron had spoken on Wednesday night (local time).

“It is the case that in the past we have offered to host and to help with joint patrols,” he said.

“I think that could be invaluable in helping to address this issue. I really do hope that the French will reconsider that offer.”

But Mr Macron said Britain needed to stop politicising the issue for domestic gain, while his interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, said Britain had to be a part of the answer.

Earlier, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, said he was in shock.

“They are murderers, they are really murderers. And of course we are all so upset,” he told the BBC. 

“You know, we are used to the migrants and we know that it cannot continue. We knew that there would be a catastrophe and we had that today.”

Mr Macron said “France will not let the Channel become a cemetery” as he promised that authorities would track down the criminals who sold men, women and children a spot on the dinghy.

Mr Johnson admitted efforts to stem the flow of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats “haven’t been enough”.

“What this shows is that the gangs who are sending people to sea in these dangerous crafts will literally stop at nothing,” Mr Johnson said.

“Our offer is to increase our support but also to work together with our partners on the beaches concerned, on the launching grounds for these boats.

“That’s something I hope will be acceptable now in view of what has happened.”

Mr Johnson said the “gangs” organising the dangerous journeys needed to be shown “their business model won’t work, that they can’t simply get people over the Channel from France to the UK”.

Otherwise, he said, “they will continue to deceive people, to put people’s lives at risk and, as I say, to get away with murder”.

On Wednesday, more boats than usual left France’s northern shores to take advantage of calmer conditions in the busy shipping lane.

But while the waves were smaller, they still had power to upturn small boats – and the water was bitterly cold.

Human traffickers typically overload the dinghies, leaving them barely afloat and at the mercy of waves as they try to reach British shores.

Three times as many migrants have attempted to make the dangerous journey through the Dover Straight in small dinghies this year compared to 2020.

Wednesday’s tragedy emerged after a fisherman called authorities after seeing an empty dinghy and people floating – either unconscious or already dead – face-down in the water.

France had earlier stated 31 people lost their lives, but the number was later revised down to 27, government officials said.

French police arrested four alleged human traffickers suspected of involvement in the accident.

Two migrants remain critically ill in hospital with severe hypothermia.

– with AAP

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