Exclusive: France backtracks over claims it may have caught smugglers behind migrant tragedy

·2-min read
Migrant dinghy heads off the French coast to cross the English channel
Migrant dinghy heads off the French coast to cross the English channel

France on Thursday backtracked on claims to have arrested smugglers behind the migrant tragedy that saw at least 27 drown.

Seventeen men, seven women and three minors died when the inflatable boat lost air and took on water off the northern port of Calais on Wednesday, according to public prosecutors in Lille. A manslaughter probe has been opened.

Under pressure to show he was on top of the situation, French interior minister Gérald Darmanin announced last night that four suspected traffickers accused of being directly linked to the doomed crossing had been arrested. On Thursday morning, he said that a fifth man suspected of buying inflatable boats for the crossing had been detained.

However, the Lille prosecutor’s office has all but ruled out any link between those arrested and the dead migrants.

In a message seen by The Telegraph, it said that there was “no objective link” with its investigation into people trafficking by a criminal gang and manslaughter related to the deaths.

In a clear sign they did not believe the suspects were linked to the drownings, their case is being handled by a separate prosecutor in Dunkirk.

The Lille prosecutor confirmed that seventeen men, seven women and three “young people who could be teenagers” (two boys and a girl) died when the inflatable boat lost air and took on water off the northern port of Calais on Wednesday.

It confirmed that the lives of two survivors who were recovered with advanced hypothermia were “on the face of it not in danger”.

Speaking to RTL radio on Thursday morning, Mr Darmanin said that the fifth suspect had been driving a car with German number plates and had “bought inflatable boats in Germany”. He said 1,500 suspected people smugglers had been arrested in France since the beginning of the year.

He said they "operate like mafia organisations", using encryption to stop police tapping their phone conversations.

“The main responsibility for this situation lies with the smugglers,” Mr Darmanin said, describing them as “mafia-like organisations in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain”, adding: “France and Britain have to work together. We can no longer be the only countries to be fighting these smugglers.”

In telephone talks, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron agreed on the "urgency of stepping up joint efforts to prevent these deadly crossings" and that "it is vital to keep all options on the table" to break the business model of the smuggling gangs, according to Downing Street.

However, with pressure high on both sides of the Channel, the blame game continued.

Mr Johnson insisted London had faced "difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that the situation deserves".

The Elysée, for its part, said Mr Macron told the Prime Minister he "expected the British to cooperate fully and refrain from exploiting a dramatic situation for political ends".

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