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Refugee tragedy from Calais: Never before have so many perished in the English Channel


The helpers in Calais have been warning for weeks: They cannot keep up with the sea rescue of migrants. At least 27 people have now died in the English Channel - Paris and London blame each other.

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Remains of an inflatable boat on the beach at Wimereux


This fall, things are different in Calais.

In previous years, the number of those who dare to take the life-threatening voyage across the English Channel to Great Britain decreased in November.

Not this year, even if the water is icy cold.

For weeks, the shipping authorities and refugee workers on site have been sounding the alarm and warning that they will be overwhelmed by rescuing migrants in distress at sea. And so it seemed only a matter of time before tragedy occurred. "I'm not surprised," said Charles Devos from the French sea rescue service SNSM, who recovered six bodies from the sea off Calais on Wednesday, told the AFP news agency on Wednesday.

Six of a total of 27 bodies, including five women and a little girl. Originally, the authorities had reported more than deaths, but this number was corrected downwards on Thursday night: Two people were saved alive, one is missing. That is the preliminary result of the worst refugee accident to date in the strait between Calais and Dover. The overcrowded rubber dinghy in which the migrants wanted to cover the thirty kilometers or so to Britain was full of water.

The governments in Paris and London were appalled after the accident.

"France will not allow the English Channel to become a cemetery," said President Emmanuel Macron in a statement distributed by the Elysée Palace.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was "shocked and upset".

Both leaders blamed criminal traffickers for the tragedy - and otherwise blamed each other for the inadequate fight against these gangs.

The local refugee aid organizations, on the other hand, denounced the deterrence policies of both countries, which induce migrants to risk their lives.

They are fleeing war or poverty

For more than two decades, the problems of European refugee policy have been concentrated in Calais. But lately the situation on the stretch of coast around the northern French city has worsened like never before: within the past three months, the shipping administration has registered doubling attempts to cross illegally towards Dover. 7,800 people have been rescued from distress at sea since the beginning of the year. Overall, according to authorities, there are significantly more migrants in and around Calais - from where the chalk cliffs of Dover can be seen with the naked eye - than in previous years. The sporting goods supermarket Décathlon recently stopped selling rubber dinghies, canoes and other water sports equipment in its branches in northern France. He doesn't want to supply any equipment for the risky canal crossings.

Many of the people waiting in the region to continue their journey to England come from countries in East Africa and the Middle East. They are fleeing war or poverty and are hoping for a black market job in Britain. In France they usually live under the most difficult conditions, sometimes in bushes and forests around Calais. It is the declared policy of the government in Paris to keep the migrants who are unwanted from all sides on the move so that slums do not form. Unauthorized access to the ferries in the port or to the entrance of the Eurotunnel, which leads west of the city towards Great Britain, has been made virtually impossible by fences, barbed wire and video cameras.

Only hours after the drama, a dispute broke out between London and Paris over which side was complicit.

"We have had difficulty convincing some of our partners to do things the way the situation requires, especially the French," said Prime Minister Johnson.

He insisted on even more deterrence and closer surveillance of the coast by France.

A bilateral agreement from 2004 mandated France to protect the British border: it had to prevent the refugees from crossing.

In London, people have long suspected that Paris is too lax about this.

In fact, most migrants make it to the UK at some point - others die.

1552 suspected smugglers arrested

The British-French relationship is already very tense because of the dispute over fishing rights in the English Channel. Macron reacted particularly sharply to Johnson's new criticism: on Thursday night he reprimanded the prime minister on the phone that he expected the British "to refrain from exploiting a dramatic situation for political purposes." The refugee crisis on the English Channel must be tackled "with dignity, respect and in a spirit of effective cooperation." France's head of state pointed out that since the beginning of 2021, suspected smugglers had been arrested in the region around Calais in 1,552 and 44 gangs had been broken that illegally transport migrants. In addition, Macron demanded the "immediate strengthening" of the EU border police Frontex as well as a crisis meeting of the interior ministers of the countries,whom he sees affected by the tragedy. This also includes Germany. On Wednesday, the French police arrested four people who are said to be involved in the smuggling of the migrants who had died.

Macron and his government are facing pressure not only from Great Britain, but also domestically: immigration issues are at the center of the presidential election campaign that is beginning.

A crisis cabinet is meeting in Paris this Thursday morning to discuss the Calais crisis.

Refugee aid organizations such as

France terre d'asile

or Utopia 56 have criticized the problem that governments should not narrow down the problem to human smugglers.

"The smuggling networks are criminal, but France and Europe are also criminal because they make people take such risks," said Yann Manzi, founder of Utopia 56. Great Britain accuses the refugee workers of blocking legal ways to apply for asylum .

Late on Wednesday evening, around 50 people in Calais held a vigil for the migrants who had died.

The search for further possible victims was stopped in the night.

It should be resumed on Thursday.

Source: spiegel

All news articles on 2021-11-25

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