At least 31 migrants bound for Britain died Wednesday when their boat sank in the English Channel in the “biggest tragedy” involving migration to have taken place on the dangerous crossing to date, according to France’s interior minister.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 34 people were believed to have been on the boat. Authorities found 31 bodies and two survivors. One person appeared to still be missing.
A joint French-British operation to search for survivors was still under way Wednesday evening.
While the incident was the deadliest day in the channel to date, Darmanin noted other deadly incidents in the past and lashed out at “criminal traffickers” driving thousands to risk the crossing.
The nationalities of the travellers was not released.
Britain’s prime minister convened a meeting of the government’s crisis committee, and France’s interior minister rushed to see survivors in a Calais hospital. The two governments have long been at odds over how to prevent the increasingly dangerous migrant crossings, with both sides blaming the other for not doing enough.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened”.
A French naval boat spotted several bodies in the water around 2 pm and retrieved an unknown number of dead and injured, including some who were unconscious, a maritime authority spokesperson said.
Three French patrol boats were joined by a French helicopter and a British helicopter in searching the area, according to the French maritime agency for the region.
Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, told The Associated Press that he spoke to one of the rescuers who brought some of the bodies to the Calais port.
“Traffickers are assassins,” he said. “We were waiting for something like this to happen.” While deaths are occasionally reported on the crossing, such a large number of people losing their lives in one boat is rare.
The victims’ nationalities were not immediately released. People fleeing conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Sudan have been among those gathered along towns in northern France seeking to cross to Britain.
“Strong emotion after the drama of numerous dead in the sinking of a boat of migrants in the channel,” Darmanin tweeted. He slammed migrant smuggling networks that organise such journeys.
The Dunkirk prosecutor’s office said it opened an investigation for aggravated manslaughter in the wake of the tragedy.
The number of migrants using small boats to cross the channel has grown sharply this year, despite the high risks that are worsening in autumn weather. A number of people are also believed to have reached Britain in small boats on Wednesday.
More than 25,700 people have made the dangerous journey in small boats this year — three times the total for the whole of 2020.
With changeable weather, cold seas and heavy maritime traffic, the crossing is dangerous for the inflatables and other small boats that men, women and children squeeze into.
French and British authorities have picked up thousands of migrants off both the French and British coasts in recent weeks in scores of rescue operations.
“How many more times must we see people lose their life trying to reach safety in the UK because of the woeful lack of safe means to do so?” said Tom Davies, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights campaign manager.
“We desperately need a new approach to asylum, including genuine Anglo-French efforts to devise safe asylum routes to avoid such tragedies happening again,” he added.
Johnson said more needed to be done to “break the business model of the gangsters who are sending people to sea in this way”.