Saturday, 27 Nov 2021

Migrant crisis: Boris Johnson vows to take on smuggling gangs after 31 Channel deaths

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A young girl and five women were among those killed when a small boat capsized off Calais. Just two people were saved, in the deadliest day yet for illegal sea crossings to the UK. One person was missing last night.

It came as French police sat and watched more migrants set off from a beach five miles north of Boulogne. As armed Police Nationale officers sat in their patrol vehicle just yards away, a Daily Express team saw up to 40 men, women and children leave from Wimereux.

We were also on hand to witness them arriving at Dungeness, Kent more than eight hours later. Their crossing was one of 25 such trips made by groups of migrants yesterday.

Another 106 migrants were rescued by French authorities yesterday after their boats hit difficulties while trying to cross.

The Prime Minister said yesterday’s tragic loss of life proved that combined operations to stem the cross-Channel trafficking of migrants by criminals “haven’t been enough”.

Mr Johnson, who chaired a meeting of the Cobra civil contingencies committee on the issue, last night spoke to France’s president Emmanuel Macron and said he was “appalled and deeply saddened”.

He added: “What this shows is that the gangs who are sending people to sea in these dangerous craft will literally stop at nothing.

“This disaster underscores how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way and it also shows how vital it is that we now step up our efforts to break the business model of the gangsters.

“But what I’m afraid it also shows is that the operation that is being conducted by our friends on the beaches, supported as you know with £54million from the UK to help patrol the beaches, the technical support …they haven’t been enough.

“Our offer is to increase our support but also to work together with our partners on the beaches concerned. That’s something I hope will be acceptable now in view of what has happened.” He suggested France had not always approached the problem in the way Britain thought it should.

The PM said: “We’ve had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves.

“I understand the difficulties that all countries face, but what we want now is to do more together – and that’s the offer we are making.

“Because there is no doubt at all that the gangs concerned, unless they are shown that their business model won’t work, that they can’t simply get people over the Channel from France to the UK, they will continue to deceive people, to put people’s lives at risk and, as I say, to get away with murder.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “My thoughts are with the families of all of those who have tragically lost their lives in French waters. It serves as the starkest possible reminder of the dangers of these Channel crossings organised by ruthless criminal gangs. This Government’s New Plan for Immigration will overhaul our broken asylum system and address many of the long-standing pull factors encouraging migrants to make the perilous journey from France.”

France has rejected an offer from the UK for joint patrols on its beaches to try and stop migrant boats from launching.

President Macron urged his European counterparts to increase resources for the Frontex agency at external borders of the EU and called for an emergency meeting of European ministers on migration.

Four people have been arrested over a migrants’ boat which sank in the Channel, his interior minister Gerald Darmanin said.

Two suspected people smugglers were in custody after being held near the Belgian border, French newspaper Liberation said.

The Dunkirk prosecutor’s office has begun an inquiry for “aggravated manslaughter”.

Matt Cocker, who was in the Channel on his boat Portia at the time of the tragedy, said: “It was absolutely flat, with probably about 30 migrant boats taking advantage of the best weather for days to cross.

“But the traffickers put them in cheap plastic inflatables. They overload them and they split and deflate and the people end up in the water. They often don’t have lifejackets. They don’t stand a chance.”

Natacha Bouchart, mayor of Calais, said migrants paid traffickers up to £5,800 a head to make the crossing, fuelling a “mafia-style” operation more profitable than drugs. She added: “I say that enough is enough,” and accused President Macron of failing to give his police the means to fight the gangs.

While French MP Pierre-Henri Dumont said: “The Channel right now is becoming the new Mediterranean Sea [for migrants], it’s like an open graveyard.”

Fury erupted on both sides of the Channel over the lack of action from French police, with the Express witnessing one unit giving migrants a clear path to the water.

Around 40 had emerged from behind dunes on a beach known to be used by people smugglers. Police made no attempt to intercept them or seize their boat, merely switching on a siren briefly.

Bewildered infants were carried to the flimsy dinghy which then set sail, many of the cheering migrants soaking wet after wading out to board it. Some cheered and waved as they sailed away.

The vessel arrived in Dungeness yesterday afternoon where the passengers were helped ashore by lifeboat volunteers.

Dover Tory MP Natalie Elphicke said: “Stopping these dangerous crossings is the humanitarian and right thing to do.”

Former policing minister Sir Mike Penning said: “This is not a political issue. This is a humanitarian disaster I do not understand how any human beings could stand by, watch this and do nothing. This is about being human.”

Ex-Border Force head Tony Smith said: the smugglers “have no regard for human life. And right under the noses of the French police, who seem unable or unwilling to intervene.

“It is essential that we establish a joint UK/ French interdiction force immediately to stop the boats, save lives and put the smuggling gangs out of business.” Tory MP Craig Mackinlay, who has suggested Britain offers troops to patrol the beaches, said: “Promises by the French authorities to do all they can to prevent beach launchings are beyond wearing thin.

“Whilst we could obviously do more domestically to speed up deportations, the true blame for this crisis must be directed to wilful failures across the Channel.”

So far this year, more than 23,500 migrants have reached the UK by boat – triple the total for the whole of 2020.

And the Daily Express yesterday watched some of the latest to leave France.

Barking orders at families to keep up, young men carried a dinghy to the water as another group dragged the engine.

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There were many frantic cries and shouts on the beach – but terrified toddlers sat quietly on adults’ shoulders as they walked along the shore.

One woman broke down in tears, fear etched across her face, as she walked up to the 20ft boat.

A group of six men dropped the engine just moments before it was connected to the vessel.

Children cried out for their mothers with one little girl having to be comforted as the inflatable was loaded with possessions crammed into small bags.

The rest of the group walked into the water up to their thighs.

One of the migrants started shouting orders at those waiting in the Channel in an apparent attempt to create order. Some fell back into the water, unable to grip on to the dinghy, as the hideously overcrowded boat struggled to stay afloat.

Those already on the dinghy screamed as the boat rocked while still more jumped on, the migrants jostling for space.

Fear spread through the soaked passengers as the person in charge of the engine was unable to get it started initially.

Wearing a hood, hat and a face covering, he made repeated, increasingly desperate, attempts to start the engine before it finally spluttered into life.

Some on the boat cheered as the boat began to move away from the beach.

But others could only wave goodbye.

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Real action is needed, says NATALIE ELPHICKE MP

Yesterday a migrant boat sank in the Channel. Many lives were tragically lost.

This followed reports of the French authorities watching while migrants piled into small boats. The French said they would stop them setting off – they didn’t and this is the tragic result.

With winter approaching, it’s clear real action is needed. Yesterday’s events highlight the urgent need to bring the small boats crisis to an end for good.

The more migrants who cross to the UK, the more who will come to Calais to try. This is the Calais migrant magnet.

A few years ago, when thousands were smuggled in lorries, it gave rise to the notorious Calais jungle. Thousands of migrants arrived in Calais, waiting for their moment to cross. It only came under control when effective joint action was taken by France and the UK.

So what should be done now? Legal routes of entry between our countries have long been overseen by joint border controls. This means that French border police operate in Dover, while British Border Force officers work at Calais. That’s what we now need to see on the beaches of Northern France and across the entire Channel – an extension of the successful joint working to boost security on both sides of the Channel.

It would mean migrants could be returned to France wherever they are picked up. Popular departure beaches could be monitored by joint patrols.

Joint action on the French sea border would strengthen efforts to curb criminal gangs and save lives. The small boats crisis has gone on for too long.

We need to stop further loss of life. Yesterday’s events were a wake-up call. It’s time to end this crisis once and for all.

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