At least 31 migrants bound for Britain died on Wednesday when their boat sank in the English Channel in what France’s interior minister has called the biggest migration tragedy on the dangerous crossing to date.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 34 people were believed to have been on the boat. Authorities found 31 bodies – including those of five women and a young girl – and two survivors, he said. One person appeared to still be missing. The nationalities of the travellers are not yet known.
The regional maritime authority, which oversees rescue operations, later said 27 bodies were found, two people survived and four others were missing and presumed drowned. The discrepancy in the numbers was not immediately explained.
He said in Calais the boat had been “very frail”, likening it to “a pool you blow up in your garden”.
A joint search and rescue operation by the French and British authorities launched after a fishing boat spotted people in the sea off France was called off late on Wednesday.
Fisherman Nicolas Margolle said he had seen two small dinghies in trouble, one with people on board and the other empty.
He said another fisherman had called the rescue teams after seeing an empty dinghy adrift and 15 people floating motionless near by, either unconscious or dead.
Mr Margolle said there was an increase in the number of dinghies trying to cross the Channel on Wednesday because the weather was good.
“But it's cold,” he said.
Investigation launched into aggravated manslaughter
Mr Darmanin said four suspected people traffickers had been arrested in connection with the sinking.
He said two had already appeared in court and that the regional prosecutor had opened an investigation into aggravated manslaughter.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex said the incident was a “tragedy” and offered his condolences.
“My thoughts are with the many missing and injured, victims of criminal smugglers who exploit their distress and injury,” Mr Castex said.
French President Emmanuel Macron called for an emergency meeting of European ministers, the BBC reported.
“France will not let the Channel become a cemetery,” Mr Macron said.
Johnson 'appalled' over deaths
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who chaired a meeting of the government’s emergency civil contingencies committee, said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened” by what had happened.
“What this shows is that the gangs who are sending people to sea in these dangerous crafts will literally stop at nothing,” Mr Johnson said.
“But what I’m afraid it also shows is that the operation that is being conducted by our friends on the beaches, supported, as you know, with £54 million ($71.9m) from the UK to help patrol the beaches, the technical support we’ve 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 launching grounds for these boats. That’s something I hope will be acceptable now in view of what has happened.”
He urged France to step up efforts to stem the flow of migrants crossing the Channel following the tragedy.
Mr Johnson said the incident showed the operations that have taken place to date “haven’t been enough”.
He said he wanted to work with the French authorities to “demolish” the operations of human traffickers who were “literally getting away with murder”.
Mr Johnson suggested the French government had not always approached the problem in the way the British believed it should.
“We’ve had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves,” he said.
“I understand the difficulties that all countries face, but what we want now is to do more together – and that’s the offer we are making.”
Later on Wednesday, Mr Johnson spoke with Mr Macron about the tragic loss of life in the Channel.
“They agreed on the urgency of stepping up joint efforts to prevent these deadly crossings and to do everything possible to stop the gangs responsible for putting people’s lives at risk," Downing Street said.
“They underlined the importance of close working with neighbours in Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as partners across the continent if we are to tackle the problem effectively before people reach the French coast.
“Both leaders were clear that today’s tragic loss of life was a stark reminder that it is vital to keep all options on the table to stop these lethal crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs behind them.”
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin insisted the French authorities wanted to work with the UK to tackle the issue.
After speaking to Home Secretary Priti Patel this week, he said he sent a list of assistance they required.
“We have to work together. Sadly our differences with legislation sometimes mean there is a slight lack of co-operation,” Mr Darmanin said.
Ultimately it required a tough co-ordinated international response if they were to be effective, he said.
“This can only be done if Belgium, Germany, Holland, the UK, work all together. Possibly we are not working together enough yet,” Mr Darmanin said.
“We really must fight against these criminals, just as we fight against terrorism.”
World's busiest shipping lane poses dangerous route
French authorities say 31,500 people have tried to leave for Britain since the start of the year and 7,800 people have been rescued at sea. The numbers have doubled since August.
The Channel area shipping lane is the busiest in the world and has claimed many lives of people trying to cross to Britain in inflatable dinghies.
Ms Patel said the most recent deaths were a serious warning of the dangers of the crossing.
“My thoughts are with the families of all of those who have tragically lost their lives in French waters today," she said.
“It serves as the starkest possible reminder of the dangers of these Channel crossings organised by ruthless criminal gangs.
“It is why this Government’s New Plan for Immigration will overhaul our broken asylum system and address many of the long-standing pull factors encouraging migrants to make the perilous journey from France to the United Kingdom.”
Mr Johnson's ruling right-wing Conservative party is under intense pressure, including from its own supporters, to reduce the numbers crossing.
“This is an absolute tragedy. It underlines why saving lives at sea starts by stopping the boats entering the water in the first place,” said Dover MP Natalie Elphicke.
“As winter is approaching, the seas will get rougher, the water colder, the risk of even more lives tragically being lost greater.
“That's why stopping these dangerous crossings is the humanitarian and right thing to do.”
British authorities say more than 25,000 people have arrived illegally so far this year, already triple the figure recorded in 2020.
The issue has added to growing post-Brexit tension between Britain and France, with a dispute on fishing rights also still unresolved.