‘It has made us all scared’ – migrants wait for their chance to cross Channel despite 27 drowning deaths

People hoping to cross the English Channel to the UK have said they will still make the journey despite 27 people losing their lives when a boat capsized.

he incident on Wednesday has seemingly done nothing to deter people from making the perilous crossing from Calais to the Kent coast.

In Dover on Thursday, a group of people thought to be migrants wearing life jackets and wrapped in blankets were seen on board an RNLI lifeboat, while in France many continued to wait for their chance to cross to the UK.

In the shadows of a disused warehouse in Grande-Synthe, east of Calais, a group of men have waited for a month to make the journey.

The location, they say, had previously been a “camp” for people who had made their way to France and were waiting to get to the UK. It has since been split up, with others living in tents a 15-minute walk away.

Shivan said he had travelled from Iraq to France. He said he has no living family members and wants to go to the UK for a better life.

He said he waits every day for someone to pick people up in a van to take to cross the Channel, and added his turn is “hopefully tomorrow”.

The 22-year-old translated for other members of the group, of which there were around 15. He said he got to France by “asking people” in Turkey.

He said: “We just want to live. We’re not scared to cross. It’s better to cross. To get to the UK it’s about 15,000 euro. Maybe some people can get there for 2,000 euros, it depends.”

Ali (23) also from Iraq, said the group living outside the warehouse are from “everywhere”.

He said: “There’s people here from Turkey, Belarus.

“We don’t have a life. We want to live like you in the UK. You only have one life. People are trying and they die or have a chance to get past (the Channel).”

Speaking about Wednesday’s deaths, he said: “They had no chance to pass but we maybe do.”

Another man, who is 27 and from Iran, said he got into France in a van with around 30 people inside.

He said: “There was a lot of people, lots of really little children.”

The man said the group relies on kind gestures for food and clothes. As the group huddled around a fire, he said: “We go to the bus stop up there and the restaurant brings us food.”

In a nearby, larger camp, trolleys of food are brought in for the families with young children living in tents.

They said the news of the 27 people dying was “sad” but they will still attempt the crossing themselves.

One man, who did not want to be named, said he was due to get on a boat on Wednesday morning, and he had even gone to a beach to meet with people smugglers, but his attempt was stopped by police.

He said: “There were two boats and had already gone.”

The man said news of the drownings had made him “scared” about the crossing.

Sanger Ahmed, from Belarus, said he lived in Manchester around 10 years ago but went to Iraq and then back home. He arrived in France last week after taking a train through Germany.

The 32-year-old said he left home “to get a chance to get to the UK”.

Mr Ahmed said he has a degree in business management and wants to get to the UK for a better life.

He said when he lived in Manchester it was “easier” to get to the UK, “but now you take a boat”.

He added: “I think I will try and do that. There are people that manage that and I need to speak to them about it.”

Speaking about Wednesday’s incident, Mr Ahmed said: “I’ve heard different stories. There is no information. Everyone is devastated.

“I want to go for a better life. It has better asylum and standard of living. I don’t have family there but most people do.

“I am scared to go over. It has made us all scared.”

France said on Thursday it was mobilising reservists and beefing up sea rescue operations as London and Paris traded blame over the deaths of 27 migrants.

The deaths have created more animosity between countries already at odds over Brexit, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying France was at fault and French Interior Minister Gerald accusing Britain of “bad immigration management”.

President Emmanuel Macron defended Paris’s actions but said France was merely a transit country for most migrants on its soil and that increased 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.”

One smuggler arrested overnight had bought dinghies in Germany, and many often cross via Belgium before reaching France’s northern shores, on their way to Britain, French officials said.

France will invite interior ministers from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK, as well as the European Commission, to a joint meeting on Sunday in Calais, the prime minister’s office said.

Wednesday’s incident was the worst of its kind on record in the waterway separating Britain and France, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, where currents are strong and the water is cold.

With relations fraught by years of tension over Brexit and immigration, much of the focus on Thursday was on who should bear responsibility, even if both sides vowed to work together to find joint solutions.

“We have had difficulty persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves,” Johnson said.

Britain repeated an offer to have joint British-French patrols off the French coast near Calais, from where many migrants take to the water.

Paris has previously 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.

They are also sensitive issues in Britain, where Brexit campaigners told voters that leaving the European Union would mean regaining control of the country’s borders.

London has in the past threatened to cut financial support for France’s border policing if Paris fails to stem the flow of migrants.

“We’re prepared to offer support on the ground, we’re prepared to offer resources,” Immigration Minister Kevin Foster told BBC TV. “We’re clear: we don’t just see this as an issue that France needs to deal with, but one that we want to work together with France and our wider European partners…”

Rescue volunteers and rights groups said such drowning incidents 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 NGOs pointed to a lack of legal migration routes and heightened security at the Eurotunnel undersea rail link, which has pushed migrants to try to make 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 which rescues people at sea.

“The smugglers are more and more reckless, criminal, launching at sea poor innocent people who want to reach England at all costs without knowing the sea.”

Reporters witnessed one group of migrants emerging from the sand dunes near Calais before piling into an inflatable dinghy. They were seen landing hours later in Dungeness, southern England.

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

Priti Patel, asked by Conservative former minister David Davis about the offers made by the UK to France, said: “I’ve asked them today for an honest assessment in terms of their own numbers on the beaches, whether or not there are gaps, if more officers are needed, a realistic assessment in terms of the number of migrants that are coming from Belgium in particular.

“Minister Darmanin specifically mentions the pressures from that border and the boats where the fatalities (happened) yesterday, they came from Dunkirk so clearly there are more flows there.

“But absolutely more police officers, more intelligence co-operation, more on technologies – we have put forward a very, very significant technology offer which does include enhanced surveillance, it does include ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) on the roads coming up to the beaches.

“We’ve also offered to put more officers – unwarranted because they will not take warranted officers – but these are the things I will be working through very specifically now because the status quo cannot persist.

“I think there’s a full understanding of this on the French side.”

Ms Patel earlier said offers of joint patrols had been made “yet again” to her French counterpart “in the last hour”.

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who currently sits as an independent MP, said: “Does the Home Secretary (Priti Patel) accept that the only way in which people traffickers and gangs can operate is because of the absolute desperation of people across Europe and indeed across the world?

“And instead of concentrating on more frontiers, more barbed wire, more surveillance not just in this country but all across Europe, what we should be doing is looking at the causes of asylum in the first place: the environmental disasters, the wars, the abuse of human rights, the poverty?”

Ms Patel replied that the Government is working to address these issues with the international community, adding: “Migrants are not just in the hands of people smugglers, they are travelling through safe countries where there are functioning asylum systems in these safe countries where they could claim asylum. That also is something that all international partners should be supporting.”

In response to a question from Defence Committee chair Julian Lewis about agreements to return migrants to other countries, the Home Secretary said: “I think I have spoken in this House a few times now about returns agreements and the difficulties of getting returns agreements.

“I will say again for the record, I have put the offer on the table, another offer to my French counterpart Minister Darmanin today, that I am very happy to discuss returns agreements with him.”

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