Dunkirk, France/Zagreb, Croatia 

France pledged on Thursday to step up surveillance of its northern shores, but migrants huddling in makeshift camps said neither that nor a tragic drowning the day before would stop them from trying to cross the channel to Britain. 

Seventeen men, seven women and three teenagers died on Wednesday when their dinghy deflated in the channel, one of many such risky journeys attempted in small, overloaded boats by people fleeing poverty and war in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.

France Wimereux near Calais deflated dinghy

A damaged inflatable dinghy is seen near the Slack dunes, the day after 27 migrants died when their dinghy deflated as they attempted to cross the English Channel, in Wimereux, near Calais, France, on 25th November. PICTURE: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol.

The deaths deepened animosity between Britain and France, already at odds over Brexit. Prime Minister Boris Johnson France was at fault and French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin accused Britain of "bad immigration management".

With relations fraught over Brexit and immigration, much of the focus on Thursday was on culpability, even if both sides vowed to seek joint solutions.


The day after 27 people died trying to reach Britain in an inflatable dinghy, charities said the channel dividing Britain from France was sure to claim more migrants risking everything to flee war and poverty across the Middle East and Africa.

"Unless we see this as a catalyst for proper systemic change, this will keep happening again and it will get worse," said Kay Marsh, who works for the migrant charity Samphire in Dover, Britain's gateway to Europe. "The deterrents aren't working." 

In the past decade, hundreds of thousands have slipped into the wealthy economies of Western Europe with the help of smugglers, fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty on epic journeys from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan and elsewhere. Few are welcomed.

France and Britain traded blame on Thursday after the worst recorded accident of its kind in the Channel. But only hours after the drownings, around 40 migrants made it to Dover, to be taken away on a red double-decker bus by British border forces.

Neither the peril of the crossing nor the $2,500 per person that charities say the smugglers charge appear to deter them.

Campaigners say Britain should therefore allow asylum claims to be made from outside the country.

"We need to be giving people the option to claim asylum before reaching British shores: a processing centre in northern France where people can make their claim to asylum without having to make the crossing, and people with a legitimate claim to asylum can be brought here safely," Marsh said. 

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council charity, said: "The government needs to look at providing what are called safe routes, safe ways that people who are in search of safety can get to the UK."

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman said this would only encourage more people to embark on dangerous journeys: "We need to address illegal migration upstream - and before people reach the French coast."


President Emmanuel Macron defended Paris's actions but said France was merely a transit country for many migrants and more European cooperation was needed to tackle illegal immigration.

"I will...say very clearly that our security forces are mobilised day and night," Macron said during a visit to the Croatian capital Zagreb, promising "maximum mobilisation" of French forces, with reservists and drones watching the coast.

"But above all, we need to seriously strengthen cooperation...with Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain and the European Commission." 

Johnson said later on Thursday that he had written to Macron to set out five steps the two countries could take to avoid the deaths of more migrants.

They included joint patrols to prevent more boats from leaving French beaches, using sensors and radar and immediate work on a returns agreement with France and a similar deal with the European Union, Johnson said.

When Britain left the EU, it was no longer able to use the bloc's system for returning migrants to the first member state they entered.

"Maybe we die"
Wednesday's was the worst such incident on record in the waterway separating Britain and France, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

But migrants in a small makeshift camp on the outskirts of Dunkirk, near the seashore, said they would keep trying to reach Britain, whatever the risks.

"Yesterday is sad and it is scary but we have to go by boat, there is no other way," said 28-year old Manzar, a Kurd from Iran, huddled by a fire alongside a few friends. 

"Maybe it's dangerous, maybe we die, but maybe it will be safe. We have to try our chance. It's a risk, we already know it is a risk." Manzar said he had left Iran six months ago and arrived in France 20 days ago, after walking across Europe.

Britain repeated an offer to have joint British-French patrols off the French coast near Calais. 

Paris has resisted such calls and it is unclear whether it will change its mind five months before a presidential election in which migration and security are important topics. 

Migration is also a sensitive issue in Britain, where Brexit campaigners told voters that leaving the European Union would mean regaining control of borders. London has in the past threatened to cut financial support for France's border policing if it fails to stem the flow of migrants.

British Home Secretary Priti Patel said she would meet her French counterpart at the weekend and was sending officials to Paris on Friday to discuss better cooperation.

EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson said she would offer France financial help and assistance from the bloc's border force, Frontex.

"A tragedy that we dreaded"
Rescue volunteers and rights groups said drownings were to be expected as smugglers and migrants take more risks to avoid a growing police presence.

"To accuse only the smugglers is to hide the responsibility of the French and British authorities," the Auberge de Migrants NGO said.

It and other groups pointed to a lack of legal migration routes and added security at the Eurotunnel undersea rail link, which has pushed migrants to try the perilous sea crossing. 

"This a tragedy that we dreaded, that was expected; we had sounded the alarm," said Bernard Barron, head of the Calais region SNSM, a volunteer group that rescues people at sea.

But Johnson's spokesman said providing a safe route for migrants to claim asylum from France would only add to the incentives for people to make dangerous journeys.

The number of migrants crossing the Channel has surged to 25,776 so far in 2021, up from 8,461 in 2020 and 1,835 in 2019, according to the BBC, citing government data.

Before Wednesday's disaster, 14 people had drowned this year trying to reach Britain, a French official said. In 2020, seven people died and two disappeared, while in 2019 four died.

Meanwhile, the Italian coastguard has rescued about 300 migrants from an overloaded boat that ran into difficulty in rough seas in the Mediterranean as they tried to reach Europe. 

Some of the people were floating in the water as rescue units reached the boat about 14 miles from the coast of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.

The operation overnight on Wednesday and Thursday involved three ships and an airplane, the coastguard said in a statement.

A total of 296 people, including 14 women and eight minors, were saved.

Italy has seen a sharp increase in boat migrants in recent weeks and the latest arrivals will put further pressure on Prime Minister Mario Draghi's government to secure an agreement with European Union partners over how to deal with the influx.

Another 203 migrants travelling on three separate boats have disembarked in the last two days in the southern region of Calabria, adding more pressure on Italy's rescue capacity.

Some 61,935 migrants have landed in Italy so far in 2021, interior ministry data show, against 32,542 in the same period last year.