CALAIS, France – Helicopters buzzed above the waves and vessels were already scouring the cold waters when French maritime rescue volunteer Charles Devos added his boat to the frantic search for a flimsy migrant craft that foundered in the English Channel, killing at least 27.
What Devos found was gruesome. But not, he later sorrowfully acknowledged, wholly unexpected. With migrants often setting off by the hundreds in flotillas of unseaworthy and overloaded vessels into the busy shipping lane crisscrossed by hulking freighters, and frequently beset by treacherous weather, waves and currents, Devos had long feared that tragedy would ensue.
That came this week, with the deadliest migration accident to date on the dangerous stretch of sea that separates France and Britain.
“I'd been somewhat expecting it because I'd say, 'It's going to end with a drama,'” he said.
France and Britain appealed Thursday for European assistance, promised stepped-up efforts to combat people-smuggling networks and also traded blame and barbs in the wake of Wednesday's deadly sinking that again shone a light on the scale and complexity of Europe's migration problems.
French President Emmanuel Macron appealed to neighboring European countries to do more to stop illegal migration into France, saying that when migrants reach French shores with hopes of heading on to Britain, “it is already too late.”
Macron said France is deploying army drones as part of stepped-up efforts to patrol its northern coastline and help rescue migrants at sea. But he also said that a greater collective effort is needed, referring to France as a “transit country” for Britain-bound migrants.
Ministers from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Britain and EU officials will meet on Sunday to discuss increasing efforts to crack down on migrant-smuggling networks, Macron's government announced. They will convene in Calais, one of the French coastal towns where migrants gather, looking for ways to cross to the British coast that is visible from France on clear days.
Ever-increasing numbers of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere are risking the perilous journey from France, hoping to win asylum or find better opportunities in Britain.
The crossings have tripled this year compared with 2020. Shipwrecks on the scale of Wednesday's are rare in the Channel but not so in the Mediterranean Sea, where just this year about 1,600 people have died or gone missing, according to U.N. estimates.
Macron's government vowed to bring those responsible for the tragedy to justice, piling pressure on investigators. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin announced the arrests of five alleged smugglers who he said are suspected of being linked to the sinking. He gave no details about the alleged links.
The minister also took a swipe at British government migration policies, saying France expels more people living in the country without legal permission than the U.K. Illegal migration from France's northern shores to Britain has long been a source of tension between the two countries, even as their police forces work together to try to stop crossings. The issue is often used by politicians on both sides pushing an anti-migration agenda.
U.K. officials, meanwhile, criticize France for rejecting their offer of British police and border officers to conduct joint patrols along the channel coast with French police.