Boris Johnson calls on France to smash slave gangs after 31 migrants drown in the sea near Calais

1 week ago

Boris Johnson has called on France to smash slave gangs who are 'getting away with murder' after at least 31 migrants, including five women and a girl, drowned today in the deadliest-ever Channel crossing hours after French police sat and watched boats leave their shore despite a 'crackdown'.

Four alleged people smugglers thought to be connected with the disaster were arrested by police north of Dunkirk, near the France-Belgian border, this evening after tragedy struck shortly around 2pm when an 'overloaded' boat capsized in rough seas amid rain and cold weather and was found by fishermen, with three coastguard vessels and a helicopter rushed to the scene.   

The 31 deaths are the biggest single-day loss of life from migrant crossings in the Channel, with the previous grim record believed to be a family of five Kurdish-Iranians who drowned in October last year. Before the accident, a total of 14 people had drowned this year trying to make it to Britain. 

Mr Johnson chaired an emergency Cobra meeting this afternoon as a search and rescue effort continued after the disaster amid anger from Tory MPs over soaring numbers of migrant crossings from France - with nearly 27,000 landing on the south coast this year. 

The Prime Minister said he was 'shocked, appalled and deeply saddened' and that the UK needed to work with 'our French friends' and the rest of Europe to address the crisis. 'I say to our partners across the Channel, now is the time for us all to step up, to work together, to do everything we can to break these gangs who are literally getting away with murder.'  

Mr Johnson also criticised Mr Marcon's Government, saying there had been 'difficulty persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way we think the situation deserves'.

'The operation that has been conducted by our friends on the beaches, supported with £54million from the UK, to help patrol the beaches, all the technical support we have been giving, they haven't been enough.

'Unless [smugglers] are shown that their business model won't work, that they cannot simply get people across the channel from France to the UK, they will continue to deceive people, to put lives at risk and, as I say, to get away with murder.' 

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told a press conference two people were plucked from the water but that 'their life is in danger, they are suffering from severe hypothermia'. He added 34 people were onboard the 'very frail' boat which was 'like a pool you blow up in your garden', though other estimates said the number was nearer 50, and that one person was still missing. 

French prosecutors have opened a manslaughter enquiry over the deadly crossing, thought to have been organised by a criminal gang who – if caught – face charges of 'manslaughter' and 'assistance with illegal immigration in an organised gang', a spokesman for Dunkirk prosecutors said.      

Just hours before the accident, pictures taken on a beach near Wimereux, a few miles north of Boulogne-sur-Mer, showed a group of 40 migrants pushing dinghies out to sea watched by police who seemingly did nothing to stop them. The boats were later pictured arriving in the UK, meaning they are not the same as the one that capsized. 

MP for Calais Pierre-Henri Dumont branded the Channel 'the new Mediterranean Sea' and said it was 'like an open sky graveyard.' He said migrants should be moved from Calais to the middle of France - even if by force - because they will continue to try to cross the English Channel as long as they are on the coast.  

French President Emmanuel Macron pushed back on the Mr Dumont's statement and said he would not let the Channel become a 'cemetery'. He called for an emergency meeting of European Union migration ministers in the wake of the tragedy. 

A French sea rescue boat was seen carrying the bodies of migrants recovered off the coast of Calais this evening as police said they had arrested four alleged people smugglers thought to be connected to the tragedy which saw at least 31 migrants, including five women and a girl, down today as they tried to cross the Channel 

At least 31 migrants have drowned in the Channel attempting to cross from France to the UK, just hours after a different group of 40 migrants were pictured launching dinghies from the French coast watched by police 

Yards away was a French police car with at least two cops inside who appeared to do nothing, despite Emmanuel Macron's government yesterday vowing that forces would be in action

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told a press conference two people had been saved but that one was more missing. He said the migrants' boat was 'very frail... like a pool you blow up in your garden'

The new arrivals bring the total number to have made it to the UK this month to 6,050, exceeding the previous record of 3,879 in September. This year's total is now a record-breaking 25,772

How many UK-bound migrants have died trying to cross the Channel this year? 

Before today's accident, which left at least 31 dead, a total of seven people were confirmed to have died trying to make it across the Channel to Britain this year. 

A further seven migrants were missing, presumed drowned, after various incidents this year.

March 2021: One migrant missing and feared drowned after the boat he was in trying to reach the UK capsized.

August 2021: At least two migrants drowned off the coast of the UK while another died after being airlifted to hospital as part of a huge air and sea rescue operation after a boat carrying around 40 people began taking on water. 

October 2021: Three Somali migrants feared to have drowned after falling overboard while trying to reach Britain. A further four people, including two children, died while crossing. 

November 2021: One migrant dies in day of record 853 crossings in early November. Today, at least 31 migrants died off the coast of Calais in the deadliest ever incident in the Channel.

Mr Johnson told broadcasters this evening: 'This disaster underscores how dangerous it is to cross the channel in this way, and it also shows how vital it is that we step up our efforts to break the business model of the gangsters who are sending people to sea in this way.

'That is why it is so important that we accelerate if we possibly can all the measures contained in our Borders and Nationalities Bill so we distinguish between people who come here legally and people who come here illegally, but that we also use every power that we can - we leave no stone unturned - to demolish the business proposition of the human traffickers and the gangsters.' 

'And, of course, we have to work with our French friends, with our European partners, and I say to our partners across the Channel, now is the time for us all to step up, to work together, to do everything we can to break these gangs who are literally getting away with murder.

'What this shows is that the gangs who are sending people to sea in these dangerous craft will literally stop at nothing. But what, I'm afraid, it also shows is that the operation that's being conducted by our friends on the beaches, supported as you know with £54 million from the UK to help patrol the beaches, all the technical support that we've been giving, they haven't been enough.

'Our offer is to increase our support, but also to work together with our partners on the beaches concerned, on the launching grounds for these boats.

'And that's something I hope that will be acceptable now, in view of what has happened, 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.

'We've had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves, but I understand the difficulties that all countries, that all countries face, but what we want now is to do more together. And that's the offer that we're making.'

Around 20 rescue vehicles were seen at the Paul-Devot quay in Calais on Wednesday evening, where bodies were being brought ashore. 

The tragedy was discovered after fishermen saw two two small dinghies earlier on Wednesday, one with people on board and another empty. Fisherman Nicolas Margolle said another fisherman had called rescue services after seeing an empty dinghy and 15 people floating motionless nearby, either unconscious or dead.

More migrants left France's northern shores than usual to take advantage of calm sea conditions on Wednesday, according to fishermen, although the water was bitterly cold.  

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the deaths were the 'starkest possible reminder' of the dangers of the crossing. She tweeted: 'My thoughts are with the families of all of those who have tragically lost their lives in French waters today. It serves as the starkest possible reminder of the dangers of these Channel crossings organised by ruthless criminal gangs.

'It is why 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 to the United Kingdom.' 

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said it was an 'utter tragedy' and urged the Government to work with French authorities to provide safe routes for those seeking sanctuary.

Dover MP Natalie Elphicke told MailOnline that the French must now act to stop more loss of life. 'This is an absolute tragedy. It underlines why saving lives at sea starts by stopping the boats entering the water in the first place,' the Tory MP said.

How are people smuggling gangs exploiting English Channel crossings? 

The sinking of a migrant boat with the loss of 31 lives off the coast of France has once again raised concerns about the people-smuggling trade.

For years law enforcement on both sides of the English Channel have been playing a game of cat and mouse with criminal gangs as tactics change and evolve. 

National Crime Agency (NCA) deputy director Andrea Wilson said: 'We look to target and disrupt organised crime groups involved in people smuggling at every step of the route.

'Much of this criminality lies outside the UK, so we have built up our intelligence-sharing effort with law enforcement partners in France and beyond.

'This includes having NCA officers based in those countries, sharing intelligence and working side by side on joint investigations.

'This approach is bringing operational results in the form of arrests and prosecutions, as we have seen with this particular case. 

One focus in the UK and abroad has been on disrupting the supply of dinghies and other vessels that could be used in Channel crossings.

The sale of dinghies in French towns has reportedly been banned, with kayaks seen withdrawn from sale at a Calais store.

However one alleged smuggling gang targeted by police last year was thought to have been buying inflatable boats and engines from as far away as Germany and the Netherlands.

In the last couple of years, inflatable boats used in crossings have got bigger and bigger, now able to carry dozens of people - but not safely.

Home Secretary Priti Patel and the Government have repeatedly pledged to make the Channel route 'unviable', but the NCA previously said it views organised immigration crime as a 'continuous threat'.

Earlier this month, an international operation saw 18 people arrested by French border police in the Calais, Le Havre and Paris regions of France.

More than 100,000 euros in cash and bank accounts was also seized.

The organised crime group (OCG) was involved in the supply of boats which would each be able to carry between 40 and 60 people, the NCA said.

The network would then arrange departures from the shore of northern France, recruiting migrants in the various camps there.

Ms Wilson said much of the NCA's work has to be done covertly, but added: 'We know it is having an impact.

'We are continuing to look at ways to disrupt the supply of vessels to people-smuggling OCGs, and target those who knowingly do so.'

A joint UK-France intelligence cell that started in July 2020 has been involved in almost 300 arrests relating to small boat crossings, the Home Office said earlier this month.

'As Winter is approaching the seas will get rougher, the water colder, the risk of even more lives tragically being lost greater. That's why stopping these dangerous crossings is the humanitarian and right thing to do.' 

President and Chairman of the ports of Calais and Boulogne Jean-Marc Puissesseau told BBC News the UK and the European Union must work together to find a solution to migrant boat crossings, adding: 'Even if the sea is not looking so rough, in the middle (of the English Channel) there are always many waves. It is dangerous.

'That can happen again because they try everything to get to your country. That's why I am very upset. I don't know what to do.'

He accused people smugglers of being 'murderers', adding: 'The poor migrants who have spent months and months to come to here, and who die so close to their dream... I don't know what to do really.' 

French prime minister Jean Castex spoke of a 'terrible tragedy,' adding: 'My thoughts are with the many missing and wounded, victims of criminal smugglers who exploit their distress and their misery.'    

Earlier officers apparently made no attempt to stop a group migrants, which included at least five children, despite the French government vowing a crackdown just yesterday. 

The vow was made as the French attempted to explain how £9million of British money, part of a £54million deal to stop the migrants, has been spent as crossing soared to record levels.  

Fellow Kent MP Craig Mackinlay told MailOnline the tragedy 'was both foreseeable and avoidable'. 'Earlier today French police were photographed standing idly by whilst another dinghy was launched headed for Dover. This raises many questions of the French authorities - was this another dinghy to which a blind eye was turned; where were French border force vessels and SNSM [the French equivalent of the RNLI].  

'My call is for France to properly prevent beach launchings and if they're incapable of doing so then ask for UK assistance. My fear is this will be the first of many tragedies across the winter period. This dangerous enterprise must be stopped.'

He added: 'Promises by the French authorities to do all they can to prevent beach launchings are beyond wearing thin. The French have refused on-site help from UK Border Force and troops, they refuse to implement their own EU obligations under the Dublin Accords, they refuse to manage the pull factor of the Pas de Calais region.

'Their agenda, in advance of their Presidential elections, is now obvious - to destabilise British politics and are now straying into breaches of international border agreements. 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.'  

Meanwhile Labour Leader Keir Starmer said: 'For lives to be lost in such dangerous and desperate circumstances is a devastating and heartbreaking tragedy. The UK Government, France and the wider international community have a duty to prevent people from being forced into such peril.' 

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage was today filming in the Channel with GB News days after he confirmed he was considering a return to frontline British politics as he accused the Government of failing to 'get a grip' of migrant Channel crossings. 

The migrants, including at least five children, were spotted going into the water from a beach just a few miles north of Boulogne-sur-Mer, in the early hours of the morning

More than 4,000 migrants have made the journey in November so-far, the most ever in a single month, and the surge shows no sign of slowing down

The vow came after the French government was challenged to explain how exactly £9million handed over by Britain this summer as part of a £54million package had been spent, as crossings soared

Just hours before the accident, pictures taken on a beach near Wimereux, a few miles north of Boulogne-sur-Mer, showed a group of 40 migrants pushing dinghies out to sea watched by police who seemingly did nothing to stop them

Former leader of UKIP Nigel Farage was today filming in the Channel with GB News days after he confirmed he was considering a return to frontline British politics as he accused the Government of failing to 'get a grip' of migrant Channel crossings

Tory MP for Folkestone and Hythe Damian Collins said: 'The deaths today of migrants in the Channel is an avoidable tragedy. We must stop these crossings and crack down on the criminal gangs that profit from them. We have to show that the crossings are futile and will not lead to a permanent right to stay in the UK.'   

Jonathan Gullis, Tory MP for Stoke on Trent North, said: 'This a terrible human tragedy, my thoughts are foremost with those involved.

'The simple truth is that France is a safe country therefore people should not be making this journey.

'For too long Macron has used this issue as a political football and the result is that many people have lost their lives. This must stop now. The french authorities have to now take responsibility for policing their own border or more lives will sadly be lost.' 

Pierre Roques, coordinator of the Auberge des Migrants NGO in Calais, said the Channel risked becoming as deadly for migrants as the Mediterranean which has seen a much heavier toll over the last years of migrants crossing. 

'People are dying in the Channel, which is becoming a cemetery. And as England is right opposite, people will continue to cross.'

Calais MP Mr Dumont said:  'My message to the French authorities, which I said to them a few minutes ago, is that we need to understand that if the migrant is in Calais - or around the Channel - they will try to cross the Channel. We need to move them, even if by force, to health centres in the middle of France.'      

It comes against the backdrop of worsening relations between the UK and France over post-Brexit fishing licences in the Channel, and the AUKUS submarine pact with saw Australia tear up a billion-dollar French contract in favour of signing a new deal with Britain and America.

Amid the worsening relations, almost 27,000 migrants have crossed the Channel this year - far eclipsing the roughly 8,000 who came in 2020 and 1,000 who arrived in 2019.

More than 6,050 have made the journey in November so-far, the most ever in a single month, and the surge shows no sign of slowing down.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: 'This is a humanitarian disaster that should never have happened. It's incomprehensible that so many lives have been lost by people on a desperate and harrowing journey to Britain who were just trying to find safety.

'Surely a tragedy of this magnitude is the wake up call our Government needs to change its approach and finally commit to an expansion of safe routes for those men, women and children in desperate need of protection. How many more lives must be lost before we finally end the cruel and dangerous tactic of seeking to punish or push away those who try and find safety in our country.'

Tom Davies, Amnesty International UK's refugee and migrant rights campaign manager, said the charity was 'deeply saddened by the loss of these lives', adding: 'How many more times must we see people lose their life trying to reach safety in the UK because of the woeful lack of safe means to do so?

'We desperately need a new approach to asylum - including genuine Anglo-French efforts to devise safe asylum routes to avoid such tragedies happening again.' 

The group of migrants boarded the dinghy and gestured as they started to make the journey across the Channel to Britain

Among the group travelling in the dinghy from France were very young children wearing life jackets

The same children were pictured arriving in the UK several hours later, meaning they were not among the group that died

A father kisses his child as the pair arrive in the UK following a dangerous crossing of the Channel, just hours before a boat capsized and dozens of people drowned

Coastguards are pictured helping to tow the overloaded migrant dinghy to shore after it made a dangerous early-morning crossing from France

British MPs accused the French of 'wilfully' failing to stop the migrants, amid a backdrop of political in-fighting over post-Brexit fishing licences and a submarine pact with the UK and Australia

French officials revealed details for the first time of how they have spent £9million from the British taxpayer, agreed as part of a £54million deal in the summer.    

A spokesman for the interior ministry said: 'More than 100 mobile vehicles are being delivered on the ground for patrols and arrests, with equipment adapted to the specific nature of the terrain.' 

Specialist kit would include quad bikes, 4x4s, rigid-hulled boats and 'vehicles equipped with sophisticated monitoring and detection equipment'. The spokesman said: 'Twenty vehicles have already been delivered and are being used by the forces on a daily basis. The others will arrive in December and over the course of 2022.'

But the French did not announce any extra personnel.

During the last major Channel surge – which saw the 'Jungle' camp spring up near Calais in 2015 – France sent in 3,500 officers from its mobile police unit, the CRS. Just a couple of hundred reservist gendarmes are currently deployed.

UK officials believe the shortfall has left the French struggling to deal with the massive numbers pushed through by organised crime gangs.

Yesterday France said British cash will also be spent on 'high-performance night-vision equipment' and thermal cameras.

'Specially adapted clothing', searchlights, interception and communication equipment and torches have also been bought.

Reminiscent of the defensive line built in the 1930s to deter a German invasion, named after France's minister of war Andre Maginot, the equipment will be used to 'secure the coastal strip stretching for more than 130km [100 miles], from the Dunkirk area to the Bay of the Somme'.

The spokesman added: 'As part of the fight against illegal immigration along the Channel coast, and in order to safeguard the lives of people often in distress, the ministry of the interior is deploying its security forces day and night to monitor the coastline, prevent makeshift boats from leaving for Britain, and arrest people smugglers.'

A British government source said: 'We are pleased that the French are now doing this work to help reduce these despicable crossings.'

Last week Home Secretary Priti Patel blamed the EU's free movement policy for allowing thousands of migrants to sweep across the Continent to France and urged a cross-Europe attempt to tackle the problem.

However, France has rejected British proposals to allow UK officers to work on the other side of the Channel to detect people-smuggling operations.  

Mr Dumont said that France cannot accept the UK's offer due to 'the question of sovereignty'.

'I heard Priti Patel's comments yesterday claiming that she offered France British troops - that is not possible because of the question of sovereignty,' he said. 'But if the soldiers and patrols are in Calais with the migrants they will still find a way to cross, because you cannot monitor 200km of shore at the same time.

Six out of ten migrants arrive in France only on the day they attempt to cross – arriving from Belgium and the Netherlands.

People smugglers are charging more than £3,300 per head to make a Channel crossing, according to latest intelligence.

Almost 25,000 migrants have crossed from France to the UK this year, far more than the 8,000 who came in 2020 and the 1,000 that reached these shores in 2019

A man prays on the British coast after making the crossing from France in the early hours of this morning

Fishermen on the British coast are surprised by the sudden arrival of migrants, having sailed over from France