France accused of ‘irresponsible’ actions after Channel migrants die

A seven-year-old girl, a woman and three men died in a crush on the 'heavily laden' boat
The French navy allowed the migrant boat to continue to the UK - Steve Finn

France has come under fire for allowing a migrant boat on which five people were crushed to death to continue its journey across the Channel to Britain.

French police permitted the flimsy dinghy, crammed with an unprecedented 112 migrants, to leave the Plage des Allemands beach at Wimereux, near Boulogne, at 6am on Tuesday. The scene was witnessed by a BBC reporter.

A seven-year-old girl, a woman and three men died in a crush on the heavily laden boat after panic broke out when the engine cut out several hundred yards from the shore, police said.

Forty-eight of the migrants were taken to the shore by France, but 58 remained on board after refusing to leave the boat and were allowed to continue their journey to Britain, escorted by a French navy ship.

The French approach led to a backlash on Tuesday. Tim Loughton, a former minister and a member of the home affairs committee, said: “This is incredibly irresponsible behaviour by the French authorities on so many levels after another avoidable tragedy.”

He said France should not have allowed such an overloaded dinghy to leave the beach and should have impounded it and brought all the migrants ashore when they discovered the tragedy at sea.

“Why was the whole boat and passengers not impounded as a potential crime scene with dead bodies on board?” he asked.

Migrants are brought into Dover by an RNLI lifeboat on Tuesday
Migrants are brought into Dover by an RNLI lifeboat on Tuesday - Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images Europe

Natalie Elphicke, the MP for Dover, said she was “deeply saddened” by the loss but that there needed to be a new comprehensive UK-French agreement across the Channel to intercept boats and take them back to the French coast.

“It is irresponsible to allow people to set off in these dangerous, unsafe boats,” she added.

The deaths came hours after Parliament finally passed Rishi Sunak’s Safety of Rwanda Bill into law, paving the way for the first deportation flights aimed at deterring the Channel crossings.

On Monday, Home Office figures showed that the number of migrants arriving by small boats across the Channel had increased by 24 per cent to 6,265 in the first four months of this year, compared with 5,049 last year.

Mr Sunak said that criminal gangs were exploiting the vulnerable and “packing more and more people into these unseaworthy dinghies”.

Border Force officials said that French police were seizing more boats before they reached the sea, which meant smugglers were cramming more migrants on boats.

During Monday night, French police officers had intercepted two boats, two fuel cans, two engines and life jackets before they could be used to put migrants to sea.

The number of migrants on small boats have doubled in the past two years to an average of between 50 and 60 – with a few carrying as many as 80.

Migrants boats filmed leaving the French coast near Dunkirk
Migrants boats filmed leaving the French coast near Dunkirk - BBC

Andrew Harding, the BBC reporter who witnessed the dinghy leaving, said: “Once the migrants had boarded the inflatable boat they’d been dragging across the sand, the police made no further attempt to stop them.”

The French authorities’ interpretation of maritime law means that they will not stop or turn back the migrants at sea unless the asylum seekers request assistance because of the risk to life if they try to intervene.

Jacques Billant, the prefect of Pas-de-Calais, said the 58 migrants had remained on the boat after refusing to be rescued. “They managed to restart the engine and decided to continue their sea route towards Great Britain under the surveillance of the French Navy,” he said.