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CNN Live Event/Special

Migrant Boat Sinks in English Channel. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired November 24, 2021 - 13:00:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ZAIN ASHER, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: All right, updating our breaking news this hour.

Search-and-rescue operations are ongoing in the English Channel, as I speak, after a migrant boat capsized and sank. We now know that at least 27, 27 people have been reported dead. That's according to one of our affiliates, BFMTV. They're citing police sources.

There are unconfirmed reports at this point that some people on the boat were rescued. We do know that right now 27 people, though, have been confirmed dead,

France's sea minister says that at least five people are still missing. And I want to show you some of the video that we have of Calais, France. This is from earlier today. This shows a group of migrants departing. And they tell Reuters that they're going to the U.K.

We do not know that this is the same group of migrants that are now of whom -- many of whom are now reported dead. But we do know that this group reportedly included more than 40 people, among them, children, children. And Reuters reports that French police did at one point try to stop the migrants from entering the sea.

Cyril Vanier joins us live now from Paris.

So, Cyril, do we have any more information at this point as to how these migrants were discovered? We know that 27 people have been confirmed dead.

How were they discovered?

CYRIL VANIER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Zain, we know that it was a fisherman who first saw bodies floating on the surface of the sea. And he alerted authorities.

So, it was a fisherman not far off the coast of Calais. And remember the context here. There have been many rescue operations in recent weeks. Last week alone, 243 migrants were rescued. So the fishermen who will know these waters very well, sadly and unfortunately, might be actually used to seeing bodies in the water, because, again, sadly, this has happened before. And they know that these waters are used. This is an intensely used

trafficking route and smuggling route at the moment. So, the fishermen alerted the authorities. A rescue operation was conducted. We understand that rescue operation is still under way. And you said a little while ago that five people are considered missing.

I would gauge at this time. I would estimate that the rescue operation is involved in trying to find those five people. Nonetheless, the sad news that we're reporting this evening, that you're reporting, Zain, is that this is the worst human disaster, this according to local authorities here in France, the worst human disaster of migrant deaths in the Channel since numbers have been recorded for this.

That's what we're looking at this evening, Zain.

ASHER: So the worst ever migrant drowning in the English Channel.

So has France actually made progress, concrete progress in terms of their ability to tackle this problem, Cyril?

VANIER: That's a great question.

My snap answer would be not great, not enough, certainly, because we are still seeing these tragedies occur. So, if you look at the longer arc of this story, the migrants typically, a couple years ago, would try to cross -- get onto trucks and cross that way into the U.K., trucks that would then go through the Channel Tunnel.

And that was the preferred route and the preferred method of smuggling migrants across the Channel for quite a while. But when France and the U.K. on its end cracked down on that, and they started guarding that much more heavily, and then when France started guarding the Port of Calais much more heavily as well, what always happens in these migrant stories is that, when you close one route, then the migrants will start looking for another route.

And that is what happened here in France. That is why you're seeing them get on these dinghies, on these boats, on these on these motorboats. And the migrants are taking incredible risks to cross from France to the U.K.

So has France done enough? I think -- I think, in light of what we're seeing today, I would have to say no. But is there a good solution to this? I would also say no. The U.K. and France have a deal together whereby that France is supposed to police its northern coast better to prevent the migrants from attempting the crossing into the U.K.


There is often disagreement and bickering between France and the U.K. about this over who's paying the money, who should be sending the equipment. Latest news on that front is that France is sending 11 million euros' worth of equipment so that its forces can better police the northern coast.

But, clearly, they don't have eyes everywhere at every moment, Zain. ASHER: All right, Cyril, stand by.

So I will stand by I want to bring in Nic Robertson, who is joining us live now from London.

So, Nic, France's sea minister is saying that, yes, 27 people have been killed, but five people are still missing, five people still missing. What exactly is involved in the search-and-rescue operation?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: So, we know that helicopters are involved.

We understand that, at the very least, several French Coast Guard helicopters are involved. British helicopters may well be involved as well. Likely, these Coast Guard's helicopters will have thermal imaging. That may help them pick up the migrants who are at sea.

But absent of that, at nighttime, it's going to be incredibly difficult to find people. And that makes it sound like using thermal imaging, for cold people in cold -- in a cold mass of water is going to be an easy thing. It's not. This will be very, very painstaking, very, very difficult.

And, of course, you have the difficulty of having helicopters, multiple helicopters in the same small area. So, obviously, there will be vessels out, there will be ships out, boats out in that area as well, the Coast Guard very likely, the border force, if they can.

There's no doubt that all the stops will be being pulled out at the moment, that five people in the English Channel at night, when the weather is -- when the weather and wind has been picking up lately, is just going to be very, very difficult to see.

You can see in the those images of that of that craft, of that rubber dinghy loaded with people going off into the water that we had before from today, that -- the picture we're looking at now is relatively calm water. The picture we were looking at, the video we were looking at before, the water was already looking a bit choppy.

It is a relatively narrow stretch of water, that it is a very busy stretch of water. It is a major international shipping lane for all sorts of ships of different sizes. And out in the middle of it, the weather and the currents can get very difficult.

So it's an incredibly challenging environment right now for the rescue workers to be operating in.

ASHER: And, Nic, I'm seeing some statistics here that 23,000 people attempted to make this crossing, this journey in 2021.

That is a sharp rise from just over 8,000 people in 2020. That's almost triple the number in just one year. Why would that be?

ROBERTSON: There will be several factors behind this.

And the statistics that are being reported by the British media speak of a figure close to 25,000, 25, 700, and a tripling over that 8,000 figure from the previous year. As Cyril said, that is since the trucking routes have been effectively shut down by better scanning and better operations and better control in the Channel Tunnel as a place where migrants could try to get -- somebody even tried to walk through the tunnel before -- that they focus their efforts and energies on boat crossings.

Last year, of course, the whole of the continent of Europe was really very heavily affected, like the rest of the world, with COVID. And that would have made it harder for groups of people to gather. And one can only imagine that that made it harder for the migrants to get close to disembarking and getting embarkation and getting on smugglers' vessels and harder for the smugglers to organize in that environment.

But there's a lot of this we don't know. If the police and the authorities had a better handle on what precisely enables the smugglers to move so many people, they would be on top of it. The smugglers are very adept. We have heard accounts over recent months during this discussion, sometimes rancorous, between the U.K. and France about how much or how little France is doing to patrol the coastline.

The British complain that the French are only patrolling one small segment of the coastline heavily at one time and not other areas. And what comes out of that narrative is that, when resources are put into patrolling one area, the smugglers can very easily divert themselves and run their operations out of different parts of the coastline.


Again, it goes to the point that I was making that these are not just smugglers with a few boats. These are international criminal enterprises whose sole aim, sole aim is to make money, and, often, as we're seeing now, off the misery, off the backs of these poor migrants, who are just looking for a better life.

They're often lied to about the conditions that they're going to encounter in the boat, lied to about the number of people in the boat. These are the accounts that we hear from the few migrants who have sort of made it across and have spoken out. Some have helped the police. And that helps track down these international criminal enterprises.

But, again, the other powerful element of an international criminal enterprise, particularly if you're a migrant, particularly if you're living in the U.K. illegally, you don't want to draw attention to yourself and speak out to give the police information, because you could be deported, or because the criminal enterprise could reach out and harm you or harm your family from the country you came from.

So all of these issues make it very hard for investigators, for police, for border authorities to get a grip on these smuggling operations.

ASHER: And, obviously, cracking down on smugglers is one solution. But in terms of other solutions, and finding a political solution, are there those in the U.K. who are calling for different changes, rather, in the immigration laws, so that people aren't motivated to make this perilous journey in the first place?

ROBERTSON: You know, I don't think there's a discussion in the U.K. about turning off the tap for the social welfare that is given to legitimate asylum seekers. That's not in question.

There is definitely political space, and the government seems to be maneuvering into it, to make it much harder for those migrants to -- if they're caught, to remain in the U.K. while they're being processed, to get benefits to the level that they would have gotten them before while they're in the U.K.

Only last week, we were hearing from different local authorities around the U.K., because the burden falls on the local authority at the board -- at the -- along the Channel, Dover, that kind of area, to house these migrants. And small towns and villages along the coast of Kent, which is where Dover is in the U.K., do not have the capacity to handle the number of migrants that are coming, sometimes children who are unaccompanied.

So they're being dispersed around to different local councils around the U.K. And there's rancorous debate about that as well, because some councils feel they're taking too many. Some feel that other councils aren't taking enough.

In that political environment, there is room for the government to maneuver and to be much more hard-line about how they deal with migrants. This government's under a huge amount of pressure, and is desperate to find solutions. And the current home secretary, whose responsibility this is, has been trying to take as tough a line as possible than perhaps of any previous home secretary.

And it's been to no avail so far.

ASHER: Right.

Nic, stand by.

I want to bring in Cyril Vanier.

Cyril, we are waiting for Boris Johnson to come out and speak about this. We do know that, so far, he has said that he is shocked and appalled. You have talked about the sort of political fighting, the finger-pointing that typically happens between the U.K. and France when you see migrant deaths in the English Channel like this.

Given that this is one of the worst, or, rather, the worst in terms of death toll that we have ever seen, what is likely to change going forward in terms of concrete actions? Are we likely to see more interceptions or more attempts at interceptions as a result of this?

VANIER: Zain, I get your pardon. I just want to make sure that question was for me?

ASHER: Yes, it was, Cyril.

VANIER: Yes. Sorry about that.

Zain, what's going to change? Well, that's a -- I would ask a different question. What has changed, if anything, in the last five years, since this has been a headline issue here in France? Not a ton has changed.

What has changed is that France has cracked down on the routes that it had identified, namely, the Channel Tunnel, the trucks crossing that tunnel, and migrants getting on the trucks or getting into the tunnel.

So, France has almost shut that route down. Then it started policing the Port of Calais. As both of those routes were being shut down or at least much more effectively controlled, then what we saw is that the migrants started looking for different routes. And that's why you now see them actually attempting this -- what is clearly this much more dangerous crossing, getting on these boats, getting on these dinghies, crossing over to the U.K.


A deal was struck between France and the U.K. only a few months ago, Zain, in July, whereby the U.K. would fund increased French efforts to patrol their border. But you are -- I beg your pardon -- their border, but which is their coastline, 130-kilometer stretch of the Northern France coastline.

Look, that is something that, in fairness, is difficult to do. But the French say that they are now putting more resources behind it, partly as a part of this deal with the U.K., that they are, in relatively short order, bringing 11 million euros' worth of equipment to this fight, that they are going to double the amount of law enforcement in terms of personnel that is going to be deployed along the coastline.

And so those are some of the things that France says it is doing. Now, it's regularly accused by the U.K. of not doing enough or not doing it fast enough. But that is really what those two countries have provided.

In terms of the political willpower to do this in France, I do think it is there, because incidents like this are tragic, they will make headlines in France, and they will bring this back to the fore. But this is something that has been making headlines for a number of years.

And, clearly, France has not yet found a way to achieve a global solution to this problem and to achieve zero deaths, as we have seen today, Zain.

ASHER: All right, Cyril Vanier, stand by, because British Prime Minister Boris Johnson just spoke about this tragedy from Number 10 Downing Street moments ago.

I want you to listen to what he had to say.


BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Should I just -- just go ahead.

QUESTION: We will ask you. So can you bring us up to date on what happened this afternoon?

JOHNSON: I just want to say that I'm shocked and appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of life that I see in the Channel.

I think that the details are still coming in. But more than 20 people have lost their lives, as you know. Now, my thoughts and sympathies are, first of all, with the victims and their families.

And it's an appalling thing that they have suffered. But I also want to say that this disaster underscores how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way. And it also shows how vital it is that we now step up our efforts to break the business model of the gangsters who are sending people to sea in this way.

And that's why it's so important that we accelerate, if we possibly can, all the measures contained in our borders and nationalities bill, so that we distinguish between people who come here legally and people who come here illegally.

But we also use every power that we can, we leave no stone unturned to demolish the business proposition of the human traffickers and the gangsters. And, of course, we have to work with our French friends, with our with our European partners.

And I say to our partners across the Channel, now is the time for us all to step up, to work together, to do everything we can to break these gangs who are literally getting away with murder.

QUESTION: You have known for some time that a tragedy like this was a possibility. But the measures you have taken haven't stopped the boats crossing the Channel.

Does this show in the saddest possible way that your plan isn't working?

JOHNSON: What this shows is that the gangs who are sending people to sea in these dangerous craft will literally stop at nothing.

But what I'm afraid it also shows is that the operation that's being conducted by our friends on the beaches, supported, as you know, with 54 million pounds from the U.K. to help patrol the beaches, all the technical support that we have been given -- we have been giving, they haven't been enough.

Our offer is to increase our support, but also to work together with our partners on the beaches concerned, on the landing -- the launching grounds for these boats.

And that's something I hope that will be acceptable now, in view of what has happened, because there is no doubt at all that the gangs concerned, unless they are shown that their business model won't work, that they can't simply get people over the Channel to France -- over the Channel from France to the U.K., they will continue to deceive people, to put people's lives at risk and, and, as I say, to get away with murder.


QUESTION: You mentioned there about working together and it being acceptable now, things being acceptable now.

That implies there were some measures that weren't acceptable before. What are they? What's changing?

JOHNSON: Well, we have had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think is -- the situation deserves.

But I understand the difficulties that all countries -- that all countries face. But what we want now is to do more together. And that's the offer that we're making.

Thank you very much. Thank you.

QUESTION: Can I ask one more, please? Sorry.

Do you have full confidence in the home secretary?

JOHNSON: Of course. Thank you.


ASHER: All right, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing reporters at Number 10 Downing Street after 27 people were killed after trying to cross -- making a very dangerous crossing from Calais across the English Channel trying to get to England.

Just to recap what Mr. Johnson said, he started off by offering his sympathy and his deepest condolences to the family members of the victims, of the 27 people who died.

But he said that he hopes that this tragedy underscores just how perilous and just how dangerous this particular crossing is, and that he hopes that he can, through working with French partners as well, somehow find a way to break the business model of human trafficking, to crack down on the criminal enterprises that have made these types of journeys so profitable.

He acknowledged, though, that France and England -- France and the U.K., rather, have not done enough to stop these crossings.

I want to bring in Nic Robertson, who has been listening as well to what Boris Johnson had to say.

Nic, what did you make of the prime minister's comments?

ROBERTSON: I was struck by what he said about we -- perhaps this will bring about the circumstance where we can work together on the beaches and on the launching sites.

So he gave the impression there that this has been on the table with the French, and the British have asked, can we put our officers on the beaches with your officers? Can we multiply up numbers by having our people there where the migrants are setting sail from?

He seemed to imply that. He was sort of asked that as a follow-up question. He was not fully committal on that. So, it wasn't quite clear what he was implying. But he was very clearly implying that there was a deficit and implying that something that Britain had proposed before hadn't been accepted. And he hoped it now would.

And I think this just underscores the nature of the difficulty of the conversation between the British and French governments over this issue. He said the British have put in $72 million to -- given that money to France to help them with this onerous duty of trying to patrol the coastline, onerous and difficult.

But I think that's the big takeaway there, that we see, even in this moment of crisis, when often hands come together, and there was an effort and an energy at a political, diplomatic level for hands to come together across the Channel, at the same time as U.K. and French authorities join hands to work in the search mission that's under way right now.

Even despite reaching out those hands, there's clear -- there's a clear sense of acrimony. There's a clear sense of failure. You cannot, when you -- but think when you hear Boris Johnson talking about this, of all the recent difficulties that the U.K. has had with France, whether it's over fishing rights and fishing access, which has flared up several times this year, whether it's over the U.K. replacing France as part of a -- along with the United States, to build submarines for Australia, hugely damaging to the relationship of Brexit itself, damaging.

So this is all an area that the migrant smugglers are exploiting. Part of their business model, as Boris Johnson talks about it, is exploiting the weakness in the cross-channel relations at the moment, trying to put a political lid, a diplomatic lid on this and bringing things together.

Will this situation galvanize it? It's not clear. Boris Johnson has been very quick to come out with his comments this evening. We're expecting more from French officials later today. That's also telling to me about the state of relations between the two countries.

The British government has responsibilities here. They want to lay a marker down. But it -- again, it comes down to a lack of adequate, perhaps cooperation, but resources that is absent for the scale of the problem here.

ASHER: Yes, so there needs to be much more cooperation.

I have just been told by my producers that we have additional breaking news, that there has been a very verdict reached in the Ahmaud Arbery trial. [13:25:03]

We will have that verdict for you after the break.