At least 31 migrants bound for Britain died on Wednesday when their ship sank in the English Channel, in what France’s interior minister called the biggest tragedy involving migrants at the dangerous crossing to date.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 34 people were believed to be on the ship. Authorities found 31 bodies, including those of five women and a girl, and two survivors, he said. One person appeared to be still missing. The nationalities of the travelers were not immediately known.
Increasing numbers of people fleeing conflict or poverty are risking the dangerous journey in small unsafe boats from France, hoping for asylum or better opportunities in Britain.
A joint Franco-British search for survivors was still underway Wednesday night.
Four suspected smugglers were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of being linked to the sunken ship, Darmanin told reporters in the French port city of Calais. He said two of the suspects later appeared in court.
The regional prosecutor opened an investigation for aggravated homicide, organized illegal migration and other charges after the sinking. Lille prosecutor Carole Etienne, whose office oversees the investigation, said officials were still working to identify the victims and determine their ages and nationalities.
He said the investigation may involve multiple countries as more information about the passengers emerges.
“It is a day of great mourning for France, for Europe, for humanity to see these people die at sea,” said Darmanin.
He called for coordination with the UK and said “the response must also come from Britain.”
Noting other deadly incidents involving migrants in the same waters, Darmanin lashed out at “criminal traffickers” who led thousands to risk crossing.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a meeting of the government crisis committee and Darmanin rushed to see the survivors at a Calais hospital. The two governments have long disagreed on how to avoid the crossovers, with both sides blaming the other for not doing enough.
Johnson said he was “shocked, shocked and deeply saddened.” He urged France to intensify efforts to stop the flow of migrants through the English Channel and said Wednesday’s incident highlighted how efforts by French authorities to patrol its beaches “have not been enough.”
I am shocked, shocked and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea in the English Channel.
My thoughts are with the victims and their families.
Now is the time for all of us to step up, work together, and do everything we can to stop these gangs getting their way. pic.twitter.com/D1LWeoIFIu
He reiterated that Britain wants to work with the French to “break the business model” of the gangsters.
“Our offer is to increase our support, but also to work together with our partners on the beaches in question, in the launch areas of these boats,” Johnson told reporters. “We have had difficulty persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things the way we think the situation deserves.”
A French navy ship saw several bodies in the water around 2 p.m. and recovered an unknown number of dead and wounded, including some who were unconscious, a spokesman for the maritime authority said.
A French helicopter and a British helicopter joined three French patrol boats in the search for 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 with one of the rescuers who brought some of the bodies to the port of Calais.
“The traffickers are murderers,” he said. “We were waiting for something like this to happen.”
‘We desperately need a new approach’
While deaths are occasionally reported at the crossing, it is rare for such a large number of people to lose their lives on a boat.
Migrants from around the world have long used northern France as a starting point to reach Britain, either by trucks or by boats and other small boats organized by smugglers. People fleeing the conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Sudan are among those gathered in cities in northern France.
The number of migrants using small boats to cross the canal has grown dramatically this year, despite high risks that are worsening with the autumn weather.
More than 25,700 people have made the dangerous journey in small boats this year, three times the total for all of 2020.
With changing weather, cold seas and dense maritime traffic, the crossing is dangerous for inflatable boats and other small boats that men, women and children squeeze into.
French and British authorities have picked up thousands of migrants off the French and British coasts in recent weeks in dozens of rescue operations.
Darmanin insisted that France has worked hard to avoid the crossings, rescuing 7,800 people since January and arresting 671 who were trying to cross on Wednesday alone.
“How many more times will we see people lose their lives trying to get to safety in the UK due to the regrettable lack of safe means to do so?” said Tom Davies, director of Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights campaign.
“We desperately need a new approach to asylum, including genuine Anglo-French efforts to design safe asylum routes to prevent such tragedies from happening again,” he said.