This week's tragedy in the Channel must mark a turning point
- Credit: PA
On Wednesday, at least 27 people drowned in the Channel after their boat capsized.
Pregnant women and children were among them, the French authorities said.
Despite an extensive search started after a fishing boat spotted bodies in the water off the French coast, only two of the small boat’s 34 passengers were found alive. Both were treated for severe hypothermia.
French interior minister Gerald Darmanin told an impromptu press conference in Calais on Wednesday that the boat they had been travelling in had been “very frail” — likening it to “a pool you blow up in your garden”.
Prime minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened” by what had happened.
President Emmanuel Macron called for an emergency meeting of European ministers, the BBC reported, as he vowed: “France will not let the Channel become a cemetery.”
There have been more than 300 border-related deaths in and around the English Channel since 1999, according to one report.
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And people have been expecting a tragedy of this size to happen eventually.
The boss of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, said the deaths had made him “personally very, very, very sad”.
But, he added on BBC Breakfast: “Between us I can tell you, we thought it would happen one day because these people are taking such an enormous risk to get to your country.
“When they leave their country it’s because they are suffering there and they have only one idea and wish – to get to your country.
“And they are ready to risk their lives, as they did yesterday.”
Maya Konforti, secretary general of the French humanitarian organisation l’Auberge des Migrants, told a French TV channel: “We were sure this would happen one day, but up ’till now… when there have been deaths, it was one or two at a time, but this is a catastrophe.”
The group is working to identify the bodies, contact families, repatriate the bodies and organise funerals.
“When it’s one or two people it’s manageable,” she said. “But with 31 people, we don’t know how we’re going to do it. It will be very, very complicated and it will also be very, very expensive.”
The Times reported that an Afghan soldier who had helped British forces was among those who perished.
In response, politicians have talked of responding with a closed fist — talking of the need to “demolish” the business model of human traffickers who are being paid to ferry people across the Channel — rather than offering an open hand.
Other politicians have gone as far saying migrants should be moved away from the French coast, “by force” if necessary.
Talking on Sky News Pierre-Henri Dumont, the MP for Calais, said: “My message to the French authorities, which I said to them a few minutes ago, is that we need to understand that if the migrant is in Calais – or around the Channel – they will try to cross the Channel.
“We need to move them, even if by force, to health centres in the middle of France.”
Home secretary Priti Patel told the House of Commons on Thursday: “What happened yesterday was a dreadful shock, it was not a surprise but it is also a reminder of how vulnerable people are put at peril when in the hands of criminal gangs.
“There is also no quick fix. This is about addressing long-term pull factors, smashing the criminal gangs that treat human beings as cargo and tackling supply chains.”
The human traffickers are abhorrent, but the blame cannot lay entirely with them.
The people seeking refuge in the UK are desperate — often in danger should they turn back to their own country — and, in many cases, on their way to join family already in the UK.
Ms Konforti, the leader of the French NGO, summed up the problem saying: “The existence of smugglers is in response to a need — a need because there’s no legal way to go and seek asylum in Britain.”
As the UK and France come to terms with the awful events of this week and seek a way to make sure nothing of the sort ever happens again, a hand must be held out to the desperate, while the full extent of the law should fall on those profiting from their plight.