At least 31 migrants bound for Britain died on Wednesday when their boat sank in the English Channel, in what France’s interior minister described as the biggest tragedy for migrants at the dangerous crossing to date.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanen said he believed 34 people were on the boat. He said authorities found 31 bodies—including the bodies of five women and a girl—and two survivors. It seems that one person is still missing. The nationalities of the travelers were not immediately known.
A growing number of people fleeing conflict or poverty are risking a perilous journey in small, unseaworthy boats from France, hoping for asylum or better opportunities in Britain.
The joint French-British search for survivors was still underway late Wednesday.
Darmanin told reporters in Calais that four suspected smugglers had been arrested on Wednesday in connection with the sinking boat. He said that two suspects later appeared in court.
The regional public prosecutor opened an investigation into premeditated murder, organized illegal immigration and other charges after the ship sank. Lille’s chief prosecutor, Carole Etienne, whose office is overseeing the investigation, said officials were still working to identify the victims and establish their ages and nationalities.
She said the investigation could involve several countries as more information about the passengers emerges.
“It is a great day of mourning for France, Europe and humanity to see these people die at sea,” Darmanin said.
He called for coordination with the United Kingdom, saying “the response must also come from Great Britain.”
Referring to other fatal incidents in the past involving migrants in the same waters, Darmanin attacked “criminal traffickers” who paid thousands to risk crossing.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson convened a government crisis committee meeting, and Darmanin rushed to see survivors at Calais hospital. The two governments have long been at odds over how to block the crossings, with both sides blaming the other for not doing enough.
Johnson said he was “shocked, stunned and deeply saddened”. He urged France to intensify efforts to stem the flow of migrants across the English Channel, and said Wednesday’s incident highlighted that French authorities’ efforts to patrol its shores were “not enough”.
I am shocked, bewildered and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea in the canal.
My thoughts are with the victims and their families.
Now is the time for all of us to step up our efforts and work together and do everything we can to stop these gangs with impunity. pic.twitter.com/D1LWeoIFIu
He reiterated that Britain wanted to work with the French to “break the business model” of the gangsters.
“Our offer is to increase our support but also to work with our partners on the respective beaches where these boats launch,” Johnson told reporters. “We’ve had difficulties persuading some of our partners, especially the French, to do things the way we think the situation deserves.”
A spokesman for the Naval Authority said that a French navy boat spotted several bodies in the waters around 2 pm and retrieved an unknown number of dead and wounded, some of whom lost consciousness.
The French Maritime Agency for the region said a French helicopter and a British helicopter had joined three French patrol boats in search operations in the area.
Jean-Marc Boisisso, head of the Calais and Boulogne ports, told The Associated Press he spoke to one of the rescuers who brought some of the bodies to Calais port.
“Smugglers are killers,” he said. “We were waiting for something like this to happen.”
‘We urgently need a new approach’
While deaths are occasionally reported on the crossing, such a large number of people losing their lives in a single boat is rare.
Immigrants from all over the world have long used northern France as a springboard to reach Britain, either by disguising in trucks or in canoes and other small boats organized by smugglers. Those fleeing conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Sudan were among those congregating in the towns of northern France.
The number of migrants using small boats to cross the canal has increased sharply this year, despite the high risks that worsen in autumn weather.
More than 25,700 people made the perilous journey on small boats this year – three times the total for all of 2020.
With changing weather, cold seas, and heavy marine traffic, the crossing poses a danger to inflatables and other small boats pressed into by men, women, and children.
Thousands of migrants have been arrested by French and British authorities off the French and British coasts in recent weeks in dozens of rescue operations.
Darmanin insisted that France had worked hard to prevent crossings, rescuing 7,800 people since January and stopping 671 trying to cross on Wednesday alone.
“How often should we see people lose their lives trying to reach safety in the UK due to the unfortunate lack of safe means to do so?” Tom Davies, director of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Campaign at Amnesty International UK said.
“We urgently need a new approach to asylum, including genuine Anglo-French efforts to devise safe asylum methods to avoid such tragedies from happening again,” he said.