CALAIS, France – The EU’s border agency will dispatch a plane to monitor the shores of the English Channel for migrant activity after 27 people died when their overcrowded, inflatable boat sank en route to Britain, the deadliest migration accident on record on the treacherous crossing.
European migration officials agreed on the new deployment at an emergency meeting Sunday in the French port of Calais. They also pledged to work together more closely against migrant smuggling networks and the trade in inflatable boats that are being used in increasingly frequent journeys by people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan or beyond.
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. The neighbors accuse each other of not doing enough to deter people from crossing the Channel, and countries across the European Union have long argued over how to manage migration.
“We have to prevent lives being lost. We have to prevent chaos coming to our external borders,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told reporters after the meeting. She called for more sharing of intelligence and said governments need to “go after the money.”
Starting Dec. 1, a plane operated by EU border agency Frontex will help France, Belgium and the Netherlands monitor their shores to better identify smuggling networks, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
German, Dutch and Belgian ministers also took part in the meeting, and participants stressed the need to cooperate with the U.K. Such cooperation has been complicated by Britain’s departure from the EU this year.
“This meeting was not anti-English. It was pro-European,” Darmanin said. “We want to work with our British friends and allies.”
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.
France is carrying out an organized crime investigation into the sinking. Iraqi Kurds and at least one person from Somalia were among those aboard, though most have not been publicly identified.
The meeting Sunday focused on smuggling networks, who charge from $3,400 to $7,900 for the journey across the Channel. 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.
Aid groups, meanwhile, are arguing for more humane, coordinated asylum policies instead of just more police. At makeshift camps along the French coast, clusters of people from Sudan, Iran and Iraq huddled under the chilly rain, waiting for their chance to cross the Channel. They’re undeterred by Wednesday’s deaths or by the stepped-up beach patrols.
The number of migrants trying to cross the channel in small boats has jumped this year but overall the number of migrants arriving in Britain is low compared with other European countries. Darmanin said France handles five times as many asylum requests per year than Britain does.