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After Migrant Drownings in the English Channel, France and U.K. Promise Action

Credit…Francois Lo Presti/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

French officials on Thursday urged European countries to work together on dismantling human smuggling networks after 27 migrants died trying to cross the English Channel, and the country’s interior minister singled out Britain over its policies toward undocumented migrants on British soil.

“When these women and these men arrive on the coast of the Channel, it’s already too late,” President Emmanuel Macron of France told reporters. Neighboring nations like Britain, Germany and Belgium needed to cooperate with France, he added, “to better prevent arrivals on French soil, from southern routes as well as northern and eastern routes, and to better integrate the British in preventing these flows, by dismantling smuggling networks.”

Mr. Macron, speaking at a news conference with the Croatian prime minister in Zagreb, Croatia, where he was on an official visit, insisted that France was only a “country of transit” for migrants who wanted to reach Britain.

“In a way, we are holding the border for the British,” he said, adding that most of the migrants who reach the area around Calais did not want asylum in France despite offers from French authorities.

That echoed remarks by the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, who in an interview with RTL radio criticized the “attractiveness” of the British labor market, which he said was too loosely policed. “Everyone knows that there are over a million undocumented immigrants in Britain, and British employers use that work force,” he said.

He said that France deported many more migrants than Britain. “There is a bad handling of immigration in Britain,” he added.

Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, said on Thursday that five people had been arrested at the French-Belgian border on suspicion of smuggling material bought in Germany for use in crossing attempts.

He also argued that migrants often crossed the border from Belgium just hours before trying to cross the English Channel, and called for European partners to step up their cooperation in dismantling people-smuggling networks.

Mr. Castex’s office said France had invited the ministers in charge of immigration from Belgium, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands for an emergency meeting in Calais on Sunday.

France has arrested over 1,500 smugglers since January, according to Mr. Darmanin, but their networks operate across borders, so enforcement requires tight cooperation between neighboring countries.

He said, for example, that French authorities suspected the vessel that sank on Wednesday had been bought in Germany by a smuggler whose car had German license plates. That smuggler, and four others, have been arrested in connection with the disaster.

Sixty to 70 percent of the migrants attempting to reach Britain arrived from Germany or the Netherlands and then went through Belgium into France to attempt a quick crossing, Mr. Darmanin added.

“Smugglers pick them up and, over a couple days, try to bring them to the beach,” he said. “It’s an international problem.”

Mr. Darmanin said there were “15 times fewer” migrants in the area than there were 15 years ago, with about 1,000 in Calais and another 1,000 in the area around Dunkirk and Grande-Synthe. The French authorities distribute about 2,200 meals to migrants every day, he said, and had relocated 12,000 of them since January.

But the authorities have recently faced a surge in sea crossings — up to 50 per night on some occasions, said Didier Leschi, the director of the French Office of Immigration and Integration.

“There are more passages in the English Channel today than there are in the Aegean Sea,” Mr. Leschi said in an interview, referring to the sea between Turkey and Greece, which many refugees crossed at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015.

Mr. Leschi said that he could “not recall a tragedy as important” as the deaths on Wednesday, but that monitoring the dozens of miles of coastline from where migrants embark on to the Channel was unrealistic, as it would require “tens of thousands of police officers.”