The UK and French authorities on Thursday were scrambling to combat small-boat migration across the Channel after 27 migrants drowned off Dunkirk on Wednesday.
French president Emmanuel Macron has called for accelerated attempts by France, the UK, Belgium and Germany to shut down people-trafficking operations across Europe in the aftermath of the disaster, with UK and French officials saying that some migrants arrive on the French coast by road from abroad and set off across the Channel within hours.
The French authorities announced they had arrested five people on suspicion of people smuggling and aggravated involuntary manslaughter in connection with the journey.
Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, called for a co-ordinated “European response” to the issue, involving Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands as well as the UK, to disrupt routes used by people smugglers.
Speaking to RTL radio on Thursday morning, he said that France had detained 1,500 people traffickers since the beginning of the year. “The people smuggler we arrested last night, for example, had a German registered car and had bought his inflatable boats in Germany,” he said.
Darmanin added that for a few thousand euros, traffickers were offering migrants “El Dorado” in England.
He is due to discuss how best to reduce the numbers making the dangerous crossing with Priti Patel, UK home secretary, later on Thursday.
Kevin Foster, UK immigration minister, told the BBC’s Today programme it was vital for Britain and France to work together on resolving the issues that have led to more than 27,000 people crossing the Channel in small boats this year.
He added the UK had offered during last year’s talks on post-Brexit relations with the EU to sign a bilateral deal with France to return asylum seekers who had passed through safe countries before reaching the UK but had been rebuffed.
“We cannot force our partners to reach an agreement,” he said.
French officials said the 27 who died on Wednesday comprised 17 men, seven women and three children. The two known survivors, who are recovering from serious hypothermia, are an Iraqi and a Somali. The incident is much the worst single tragedy in the Channel since small-boat migration became a significant means of making the crossing from France to the UK in late 2018.
Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, is meeting to discuss the cross-Channel migrant crisis with his ministers of interior, justice, defence, maritime affairs, transport and foreign and European affairs. He was due to hold a crisis meeting with officials on Thursday to discuss what further steps might be taken to resolve the crisis.
UK ministers are expected to press the French to agree to joint patrols on French beaches to combat the people smuggling.
Foster told the BBC: “What we’re keen to do is look at how we can support French law enforcement in tackling the situation in the Pas-de-Calais.”
He pointed out that a British helicopter had assisted over French waters in Wednesday’s search and rescue operation.
While such proposals have previously fallen foul of concerns about French sovereignty, Bruno Bonnell, a member of France’s National Assembly for President Macron’s La République en Marche party, told Today he would support joint patrols.
Immigration figures released by the UK’s Office for National Statistics on Thursday showed that cross-Channel crossings were driving an increase in asylum applications. Between July and September, there were 15,104 applications, 60 per cent up on the same quarter in 2020. In the year to September, there were 37,562 asylum applications, 18 per cent up on the year to September 2020.
The ONS attributed the rise to the arrival of small-boat migrants, nearly all of whom claim asylum, and the reopening of international travel following the coronavirus pandemic.
Even with the increase, the number of asylum applications received by the UK remains well below other European countries. In the year to June, Germany received 113,625 applications and France received 87,180.