More lives will be lost in the canal unless urgent measures are taken to stop “playing politics with people’s lives”, ministers have been warned as desperate refugees have promised to keep trying on the perilous journey.
The grim prediction came as investigators tried to identify the bodies of at least 27 people, including a pregnant woman and three children, and are believed to be predominantly Kurds from Iraq who drowned on Wednesday.
Pictures of their emptied gray rubber boat floating in the sea brought the horror of the tragedy home on Thursday, while a cold Mayday call surfaced in which the French coastguard operator warned ships of several bodies in the water. But cross-party MPs, experts and proponents expressed fears that the tragedy could recur.
Residents of temporary camps around Calais and Dunkirk told the Guardian that hundreds of people have traveled to northern France via Belarus following a crisis on the border with Poland. Many promised to pursue their plans to cross into Britain in search of a better life – and throughout Thursday, new arrivals continued to land in Dover.
On Thursday night, Boris Johnson wrote to French President Emmanuel Macron setting out five steps to avoid a recurrence of the drownings. They include joint patrols to prevent the boats from leaving French beaches; technology such as sensors and radar; mutual maritime patrols and airborne surveillance; better intelligence sharing to arrest and prosecute human traffickers; and a bilateral return agreement with France, in parallel with negotiations to establish a return agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU.
Macron has previously defended Paris’ actions, but said France was just a transit country for many migrants and that more European cooperation was needed to tackle illegal immigration.
“I would … say very clearly that our security forces are mobilized day and night,” Macron said during a visit to the Croatian capital Zagreb, promising “maximum mobilization” of French forces, with reservists and drones monitoring the coast.
Damian Collins, the Conservative MP for Folkestone, told the BBC that more deaths would occur if the French did not increase patrols of the northern beaches. Interior Minister Priti Patel said it was up to the French to intervene to prevent further tragedies.
Humanitarian groups agreed that more deaths were likely, but that they differed on the potential solutions, and instead pushed for the UK government to introduce new safe and legal routes as well as to strengthen existing ones, such as resettlement schemes. Beth Gardiner-Smith, CEO of Safe Passage International, urged Patel to step down and warned that more tragedies were on the way.
“More and more people are risking the freezing, scary journey across the Channel in small, unstable boats since the government closed safe routes to Britain last year,” she said. “If the government chooses to play politics with people’s lives, the government has failed to prevent people from risking the cross, and this is the result.”
In the shadow of a disused warehouse in Grande-Synthe, east of Calais, Shivan told reporters he had traveled from Iraq to France and would continue with his plans to cross. “We just want to live. We are not afraid to cross. It is better to cross.”
The drowned victims appear to have been predominantly Kurds from Iraq and included 17 men, seven women – one of whom was pregnant – and three children. Two male survivors, an Iraqi and a Somali, were treated for exhaustion and hypothermia at a hospital in Calais.
A criminal investigation has been opened by the public prosecutor in Lille, where five men have been arrested in connection with the incident. The fifth suspect, held Thursday morning, had driven a car with German license plates and had “bought inflatable boats in Germany”.
The boat, which was transporting at least 29 people, is believed to have started from Loon-Plage near Dunkirk. They had most likely camped out in the dunes near Grande-Synthe.
People waiting to cross into Grande-Synthe told the Guardian that many of them had arrived via Belarus, which was accused of creating a border crisis with neighboring Poland in retaliation for EU sanctions. The rise in the number of people arriving in Calais via Belarus underscores the increasingly complex picture that European governments are facing when tackling the refugee crisis.
The Interior Ministry declined to comment on the impact of the Belarusian crisis on migration flows, while the British government doubled its position vis-à-vis the French. Johnson, who held a Cobra meeting on Wednesday to discuss the incident, suggested that the French government had not always tackled the problem of the transitions “in a way we think the situation deserves”.