CALAIS, France — Top European migration officials held an emergency meeting Sunday in the French port of Calais to find ways to better fight migrant smuggling, after 27 people died trying to cross the English Channel to Britain in an overcrowded inflatable boat.
U.K. officials were notably absent from the gathering at the Calais City Hall, after Wednesday’s sinking prompted a new political crisis between Britain and France. They accuse one another of failing to do enough to discourage people from making the dangerous journey.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel said it was “unfortunate” that she was uninvited to the meeting, and reiterated Britain’s proposal for returning migrants to France. French officials firmly rejected the idea when it was initially proposed, and said Britain was no longer welcome at Sunday’s talks.
France is carrying out an organized crime investigation into the sinking — the deadliest migration accident on the Channel on record. While most are not publicly identified, at least one Somalian and two Iraqi Kurds were aboard.
In Calais, ministers representing France, Germany and Belgium met officials of the European Union as well the EU Border Agency Frontex and Europol. The focus is on the smuggling network, which charges between 3,000 and 7,000 euros for the trip across the Channel. France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said a car with German license tags was seized in connection with the investigation.
Earlier Sunday, Patel met with Dutch Migration Minister Ankie Broekers-Knol and stressed “the need for European partners to work together” through shared intelligence and joint police initiatives, according to her office.
“Both agreed that return agreements are essential for breaking the criminal business model,” it said.
The EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, tweeted that fighting smugglers is “key” to any solution, and called for a common approach. EU nations have been arguing for years about how to manage immigration.
Aid organizations are advocating for more compassionate, coordinated asylum policies rather than just adding more police. Clusters of refugees from Iran, Sudan and Iraq wait for the chance to cross the Channel in makeshift camp along France’s coast. They’re undeterred by Wednesday’s deaths or the stepped-up beach patrols.
The number of migrants trying to cross the channel in small boats has jumped this year, amid pandemic travel restrictions and after Britain’s Brexit departure from the EU. The overall number of migrants who arrive in Britain, though, is lower than other European countries.
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