French rescuers under pressure as migrant Channel crossings increase

As warm and calm weather encourages migrants to attempt the hazardous sea crossing from France to Britain, navy and coastguard services are being pressed into action to prevent more lives being lost in the increasingly deadly Channel.

French rescuers under pressure as migrant Channel crossings increase
Migrants wait for help after their boat's generator broke down in French waters while trying to cross the Channel (Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP)

In an operation witnessed by AFP on Monday, 56 migrants, including a pregnant woman and children, were plucked from their flimsy inflatable boat whose engine had broken down.

Dozens of people were crammed into the vessel which left the wide sandy beaches of the French coast in the early hours of Monday morning in a bid to complete the short trip across the narrow stretch of water.

But only two hours after leaving, their outboard engine stalled, leaving the mostly male group from the Middle East and Africa drifting in one of the world’s biggest shipping lanes.

“The situation in the boat was very difficult, no water, nothing,” said 28-year-old Mohammed once safely aboard the French rescue ship, the Abeille Languedoc, which is based in the nearby French port of Boulogne-sur-Mer.

The Egyptian, attempting his first crossing, said he was not sure he would try it again.

“Too stressful,” he said.

A pregnant woman was one of the first to be rescued, along with a girl of seven or eight in a green anorak who collapsed into tears once in the hands of the crew.

The 4,000-tonne rescue vessel, a tug boat usually deployed to tow ships in distress back to port, received a call from the regional rescue coordination centre in Gris-Nez on Monday at around 7:00 am to intervene following Mayday calls from the inflatable.

It had been leased by the French navy for rescue operations.

“The Abeille is 4,000 tonnes. It’s like an elephant heading after a mouse,” captain Pascal Le Gentil told AFP as he steered towards the GPS coordinates given for the dinghy.

Channel crossings by boat by migrants and asylum seekers were rare prior to 2019 but have since exploded — with 28,526 registered in 2021.

Deaths have also increased, with at least 27 people lost on November 24 last year in the single biggest disaster.

The crossings have become a repeated source of tension between London and Paris, with the right-wing Conservative government in Britain urging France to do more and staking its reputation on stemming the flow.

The British parliament recently passed controversial new legislation that increases the penalties for people-smuggling to a maximum life sentence in prison and imposes jail terms for anyone arriving illegally in the country.

Last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson also unveiled much-criticised plans to send anyone entering the UK illegally, as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1, to Rwanda in central Africa.

Around 7,000 migrants and asylum seekers have reached the UK so far in 2022, more than three times the number recorded by this time last year,

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French lawmakers push for abortion rights to be enshrined in constitution

After the seismic decision of the US Supreme Court on Friday, French MPs are calling for the right to abortion in France to be protected by the constitution.

French lawmakers push for abortion rights to be enshrined in constitution

Lawmakers from French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party are to propose a parliamentary bill on Saturday that would enshrine the right to abortion in the constitution. 

The move comes after the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 “Roe v. Wade” decision on Friday.

“In France we guarantee and advance the rights of women. We protect them,” said Aurore Bergé – the head of Renaissance in the Assemblée nationale and one of the key sponsors of the bill. 

Another co-sponsor, Marie-Pierre Rixain tweeted: “What happens in elsewhere cannot happen in France. We must protect the right to abortion for future generations. 

In 2018 and 2019, Emmanuel Macron’s party – which back then was known as La République en Marche – refused to back bills proposed by left-wing party, La France Insoumise, to enshrine abortion rights into the constitution. 

In a Saturday interview with France Inter, Bergé suggested that the success of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National during parliamentary elections earlier this month had created a sense of newfound urgency. 

She described the far-right MPs as “fierce opponents of women’s access to abortion” and said it was important “to take no risk” in securing it. 

READ MORE France’s Macron condemns US abortion ruling

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has come out in support of the bill. 

The left-wing opposition block, NUPES, also backs it and had planned to propose an identical piece legislation of its own on Monday. 

Macron is seeking parliamentary allies to pass reforms after his formation lost its majority in legislative elections earlier this month.

The legal timeframe to terminate a pregnancy in France was extended from 12 to 14 weeks in the last legislature.

Changing the constitution requires the National Assembly and Senate to adopt the same text, then a three-fifths majority of parliament sitting in congress. The other option is a referendum.