CALAIS, France — French President Emmanuel Macron appealed Thursday to neighboring European countries to do more to stop illegal migration into France after at least 27 people died trying to cross the English Channel.
Macron said that when migrants arrive on French shores with hopes of heading to Britain "it is already too late."
Speaking a day after the deadliest migration tragedy to date on the dangerous sea lane that separates France and Britain, 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.
"We need to strengthen cooperation with Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, but also the British and the (European) Commission," he said on a visit to Croatia. "We need stronger European cooperation."
Migration is an explosive issue in Europe, where leaders often accuse one another of not doing enough to either prevent migrants from entering their countries or from continuing on to other nations. The French and British traded barbs on the issue following the latest sinking, even as they pledged more cooperation.
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 British shores that are visible from France on clear days. Seaside communities on both sides of the channel were reeling Thursday from the sinking's gruesome toll in waters crisscrossed by hulking freighters and often whipped up by treacherous weather, waves and currents.
"This was unfortunately something that could have been foreseen, a scenario of horror that we’d feared and dreaded," said Ludovic Hochart, a police union official in Calais.
Across the channel, in the British port of Dover, small business owner Paula Elliot said: "It’s dreadful that people have lost their lives."
"The vessels that they take, are traveling in, are not fit for purpose," she said. "They probably don’t understand how arduous the journey is going to be, and especially at this time of year, it’s so much colder than in the summer."
Macron described the dead in Wednesday's sinking as "victims of the worst system, that of smugglers and human traffickers."
France has never had so many officers mobilized against illegal migration and its commitment is "total," he said. But he also made clear that it wants more help.
"When these women and men arrive on the shores of the English Channel it is already too late," he said.
Ever-increasing numbers of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere are risking the perilous journey in small, unseaworthy craft from France, hoping to win asylum or find better opportunities in Britain.
The crossings have tripled this year compared to 2020. French authorities said Wednesday's was the deadliest migration tragedy in the channel since seven migrants died in October 2020. Shipwrecks on that scale, however, are not uncommon in the Mediterranean Sea, where just this year about 1,600 people have died or gone missing, according to U.N. estimates.
The French prosecutors’ office tasked with investigating Wednesday's sinking said the dead included 17 men, seven women and two boys and one girl thought to be teenagers. Magistrates were investigating potential charges of homicide, unintentional wounding, assisting illegal migration and criminal conspiracy, the prosecutors’ office said.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said children and pregnant women were among the dead. Two survivors from the sinking were treated for hypothermia. One is Iraqi, the other Somali, Darmanin said. He said authorities are working to determine the victims’ nationalities.
Macron's government vowed to bring those responsible for the tragedy to justice, piling pressure on investigators. Darmanin announced the arrests of five alleged smugglers whom he said are suspected of being somehow linked to the sinking. He gave no details about the alleged links. The prosecutors' office investigating the deaths confirmed five arrests since Wednesday but said they didn't appear to be linked to its probe.
Darmanin said a suspected smuggler arrested overnight was driving a vehicle registered in Germany and had bought inflatable boats there.
He said criminal groups in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain are behind people-smuggling networks. He called on those countries to cooperate better against smugglers, saying they don’t always respond fully to French judicial requests for information.
"Britain and France must work together. We must no longer be, in effect, the only ones able to fight the smugglers," the minister said.
In their immediate response to the sinking, French authorities initially gave differing figures on the number of dead, from at least 27 to 31. The figure that Darmanin used Thursday morning on RTL radio was 27.
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 unseaworthy boats from crossing the English Channel. The issue is often used by politicians on both sides pushing an anti-migration agenda.
"Clearly, immigration is badly managed in Britain," Darmanin said.
He also suggested that by hiring people living in the country illegally, British employers are encouraging illegal migration to English shores.
"English employers use this labor to make the things that the English manufacture and consume," he said. "We say reform your labor market."
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.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday it was clear that French operations to stop migrant boats from leaving French shores "haven’t been enough."
He and Macron spoke after the tragedy and agreed "to keep all options on the table to stop these lethal crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs behind them," Johnson’s office said.
Macron advocated an immediate funding boost for the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, according to his office.
"France will not allow the Channel to become a cemetery," Macron said.