France beefs up anti-smuggling agency after migrant deaths

  • FILE- A police car parks over the shore in Wimereux, northern France, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021 in Calais, northern France. The price to cross the English Channel varies according to the network of smugglers, between 3,000 and 7,000 euros. Often, the fee also includes a very short-term tent rental in the windy dunes of northern France and food cooked over fires that sputter in the rain that falls for more than half the month of November in the Calais region. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler, File)

PARIS — France will double the staff of the agency in charge of fighting smugglers after 27 people died trying to reach Britain in an overcrowded boat last week and will talk with Britain about how best to stop migrants from undertaking such dangerous Channel crossings, a French official said Monday.

Speaking after a defense council meeting, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the anti-smuggling office will be redesigned next year to work in the same way as against drug traffickers. He said the personnel, currently at 123, will be doubled and justice officials and staff from the foreign affairs and finance ministries will join the office to give it “more muscle, not to say revolutionize it.”

As France and the U.K. accuse each other of not doing enough to tackle the problem of migrant smuggling, Darmanin also said the French government is open to holding discussions with British authorities to try and stop the Channel crossings.

“What we want is a balanced agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union that offers real solutions to all the problems,” Darmanin said.

He added the situation in the northern French city of Calais will be discussed by EU interior ministers next month.

Darmanin said a cooperation deal with the U.K. would have to include the possibility that refugees can apply for asylum in Britain.

“In this way, we will be able to legitimately protect migrants who want to go to Britain. Britain will be able to assess their asylum claims, and then we will be able to work on re-admissions,” Darmanin said.

Darmanin also urged British authorities to allow more unaccompanied minors to join their relatives in Britain and to fight smuggling networks with more efficiency. He said French Prime Minister Jean Castex will write a letter to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on Tuesday to detail the French requests.

European migration officials agreed Sunday that the EU’s border agency will send a plane to monitor the shores of the Channel for migrant activity after the deadliest migration accident on record.

France is carrying out an organized crime investigation into the sinking last Wednesday. Darmanin said two people survived the tragedy, coming from Sudan and Iraq. According to survivors, he said, the migrants probably arrived in France via Belgium, Germany, Poland and Belarus.

Among the victims were “at least one pregnant woman and at least three children,” Darmanin said.

The chief of France’s border police, Fernand Gontier, said the Iraqi survivor arrived in the EU after boarding a plane from Syria to Belarus.

European Union officials have accused Belarus of state-sponsored “trafficking” by luring desperate migrants to the Polish border with false promises. Many are now stuck there in makeshift camps in freezing weather.

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Follow all AP stories on global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration.

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