PARIS (AP) — At least 31 migrants bound for Britain died Wednesday when their boat sank in the English Channel, in what France’s interior minister called the biggest tragedy involving migrants on the dangerous crossing to date.
Gerald Darmanin (Interior Minister) said that the boat was believed to have carried 34 people. Authorities found 31 bodies — including those of five women and a young girl — and two survivors, he said. Unknown remains one person. Unknown were the nationalities of those who traveled.
An increasing number of refugees fleeing war or poverty risk the hazardous journey by small and unsuitable craft to France. They hope to find asylum or better opportunities in Britain.
The French and British were still conducting a joint search operation to find survivors late Wednesday.
Darmanin, a French journalist in Calais said that four suspected traffickers were detained Wednesday under suspicion of being connected to the sunken vessel. Darmanin said that two suspects appeared later in court.
A regional prosecutor initiated an investigation into the charges of aggravated and planned illegal migration, as well as other related offenses following the sinking. Carole Etienne from Lille, the regional prosecutor, is leading the investigation. She said that authorities were continuing to work with officials in identifying the victims, assimilation of their nationalities, and determining their ages.
According to her, the investigation might involve many countries as additional information is obtained about the passengers.
“It’s a day of great mourning for France, for Europe, for humanity to see these people die at sea,” Darmanin said.
He called for coordination with the U.K., saying “the response must also come from Great Britain.”
Noting other deadly past incidents involving migrants in the same waters, Darmanin lashed out at “criminal traffickers” driving thousands to risk the crossing.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson convened a meeting of the government’s crisis committee, and Darmanin rushed to see survivors in a Calais hospital. Since long, the two governments disagree over how to stop the crossings. Both sides blame the other.
Johnson said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened.” He urged France to step up efforts to stem the flow of migrants across the English Channel, and said that Wednesday’s incident highlighted how efforts by French authorities to patrol their beaches “haven’t been enough.”
He reiterated that Britain wants to work with the French to “break the business model” of gangsters.
“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,” Johnson told reporters. “We’ve had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves.”
Unknown number of bodies found under the water were discovered by a French naval vessel around 2 p.m. A spokesperson from a maritime authority said that they had retrieved some, even unconscious, victims.
The French maritime agency responsible for the region said that three French patrol boats were joined in search the area by a helicopter from France and another British one.
Jean-Marc Puissesseau (head of Calais ports and Boulogne) told The Associated Press he talked to one of those rescuers that brought the bodies to Calais.
“Traffickers are assassins,” he said. “We were waiting for something like this to happen.”
While there have been some deaths at the crossing, this is very rare.
Since ancient times, migrants from all over the globe have used northern France to get to Britain. They either parked their trucks in France or took small boats and dinghies with them. Many people fleeing conflicts in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, and Iraq have gathered in France’s towns.
This year has seen a sharp increase in the number of migrants who use small boats to cross Channel, even though the weather is worsening.
More than 25,700 people have made the dangerous journey in small boats this year — three times the total for the whole of 2020.
Changeable weather, heavy maritime traffic and cold seas make crossing dangerous for inflatables and small boats, which men, women, and children can squeeze into.
French and British authorities have rescued thousands of migrants from the British and French coastlines over recent weeks.
Darmanin was clear that France had done everything to stop crossings. France saved 7,800 persons since January, and stopped 671 people trying to cross the border on Wednesday.
“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 U.K.’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.
Pan Pylas and Jill Lawless from London helped to create this report.