By William J. Furney
The horrific deaths of 27 people whose flimsy inflatable boat lost air and sank in the English Channel on Wednesday afternoon did not deter further waves of migrants from making the perilous journey in the hours after the tragedy, in their desperate attempt to leave behind Europe and get into Britain to start a new life.
As the craft shriveled and disappeared beneath them, terrified children, women — one of whom was pregnant, and drowned — and men were cast into the icy waters of one of the world’s busiest shipping zones and lost their lives in the most gruesome of ways. Two people, from Iraq and Somalia, survived.
It was the biggest loss of life in the waters separating France and England since the International Organization for Migration began keeping records in 2014.
One of those who perished was Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin, 27 and from Iraq, who was messaging her fiancé, in England, on Snapchat when the shoddy craft began crumpling and the freezing water started pouring in. Those on board attempted to scoop the rapidly entering water out, but it was hopeless, she told him, according to an account her fiancé gave the BBC.
The perilous crossing, often in a rough and stormy sea, can be mercifully short, as the closest point between France and England, from Calais to Dover, is just 34km, and it’s undboutbedly a main selling point for high-charging people-smugglers who organise these illegal and often-fatal journeys: “Don’t worry — you’ll be in England before you know it.”
And so passengers seeking better times pin their hopes, occasionally falsely, on such vows, literally dying for their wish to get to the United Kingdom. Some say they’re not keen to stay in places like France, because they’re not treated well; others insist the overarching attraction of the UK is jobs and a generous social welfare system.
Europe was reeling from the English channel tragedy when the Italian Coastguard plucked some among 300 migrants on an overcrowded boat out of the water near the southernmost Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies just over 100km from the African coast. Almost 62,000 migrants have entered Italy so far this year, compared to just over 32,500 in 2020, according to Interior Ministry figures.
Days earlier, 203 migrants reached Calabria in southern Italy, on three boats; and over in Poland, authorities have been battling a wave of thousands of migrants attempting to enter the country from Belarus, using tear gas and water cannon to repel the aggressive, stone-throwing asylum-seekers trying to get into the European Union.
The Polish Border Guard says 88 people attempted to illegally cross into the country in 2020, but that this year, the figure has shot up to over 5,000.
Boris Johnson, whose immigration-based Brexit gamble paid off and the UK left the EU, posted a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron on Twitter on Thursday, setting out his ideas for stopping further crossings and deaths in the English Channel. But the British prime minister’s missive drew the ire of the French, who were upset at its public nature, even though it had earlier been sent to Monsieur Macron.
The British and French were already at loggerheads over post-Brexit fishing rights in the channel, and were not about to put up with the Brits’ attempted diplomacy by social media. Boris’ proposals were not new, and by revealing them to the world, he may have hoped the foot-dragging French would start to take them more seriously.
Chief among the UK’s suggestions are that migrants arriving in Britain be immediately dispatched back to where they came from. It’s hoped such a policy might act as the ultimate deterrent to those thinking about a crossing, because if migrants knew they would be returned to their point of departure, would they bother?
For now, Macron’s gallic nose is out of joint and — in a reactionary slap on the wrist — UK Home Secretary Priti Patel was swiftly disinvited from a meeting in Calais today to discuss the crisis, due to her boss’ brash letter.
Writing in the Financial Times on Friday, columnist Camilla Cavendish said frequently bumbling Boris may have scored an own political goal because “ramping up the rhetoric against France has spectacularly backfired — as demonstrated by the Elysee’s decision to rescind UK Home Secretary Priti Patel’s invitation to Sunday’s interministerial summit on migration in Calais. Now it is outside the EU, it turns out that Britain needs France a great deal more than France needs it.”
Tempers on both sides of the water are flaring, and — amid pervasive inertia — it tragically looks certain that lives will continue to be lost in it.
- Title photograph shows the Italian Coastguard rescuing migrants on Wednesday night and into Thursday morning this week. (Image courtesy Italian Coastguard)