Louis Witter / AP
PARIS – At least 31 migrants bound for Britain died on Wednesday when their boat sank in the English Channel, in what France’s Home Secretary has called the biggest tragedy involving migrants on the dangerous crossing to this day.
Home Secretary 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 still appeared to be missing. The nationalities of the travelers were not immediately known.
Ever-increasing numbers of people fleeing conflict or poverty risk the perilous journey from France in small, non-navigable craft, in the hope of obtaining asylum or better opportunities in Britain.
A joint Franco-British operation to search for survivors was still underway on Wednesday evening.
An investigation into the suspected traffickers has been opened
Four suspected traffickers were arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of being linked to the sunken boat, 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 manslaughter, organized illegal migration and other charges after the sinking. Lille prosecutor Carole Etienne, whose office is overseeing the investigation, said authorities were still working to identify the victims and determine their age and nationality.
She said the investigation could involve multiple countries as more passenger information becomes available.
“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, saying “the response must also come from Britain”.
Noting other past fatal incidents involving migrants in the same waters, Darmanin lashed out at “criminal traffickers” forcing thousands to risk the crossing.
France and Britain at odds on how to prevent level crossings
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a meeting of the government crisis committee and Darmanin rushed to see the survivors at a hospital in Calais.
The two governments have long disagreed over how to prevent crossings, with both sides blaming each other for not doing enough.
Johnson said he was “shocked, dismayed and deeply saddened”. He urged France to step up efforts to stem the flow of migrants across the Channel, and said Wednesday’s incident highlighted how French authorities’ efforts to patrol their beaches “have failed. not been sufficient “.
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 with our partners on the beaches concerned, on the launching bases of these boats,” Johnson told reporters. “We have had difficulty persuading some of our partners, especially the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves.”
A French navy boat spotted several bodies in the water around 2 p.m. and recovered an unknown number of dead and wounded, some of whom were unconscious, a spokesperson for the maritime authority said.
Three French patrol boats were joined by a French helicopter and a British helicopter to search 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 he spoke to one of the rescuers who brought some of the bodies back to the port of Calais.
“The traffickers are murderers,” he said. “We were waiting for something like this to happen.”
While fatalities are sometimes reported during the crossing, such a large number of people losing their lives in one boat is rare.
The number of boat crossings has increased sharply
Migrants from all over the world have long used the north of France as a starting point to reach Great Britain, either by packing up in trucks or in canoes and other small boats organized by smugglers. People fleeing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Sudan are among those gathered along towns in northern France.
The number of migrants using small boats to cross the Channel has risen sharply this year, despite the high risks which worsen with the autumn weather.
More than 25,700 people have made the dangerous journey in small craft this year, three times the total for all of 2020.
With changing weather conditions, cold seas and heavy shipping traffic, the crossing is dangerous for inflatables and other small boats that men, women and children crowd into.
French and British authorities have recovered thousands of migrants off the French and British coasts in recent weeks in dozens of rescue operations.
Darmanin insisted France has worked hard to prevent the crossings, saving 7,800 people since January and stopping 671 who tried to cross on Wednesday alone.
“How many times do we still see people lose their lives trying to get to safety in the UK due to the appalling lack of safe means to do so?” said Tom Davies, Campaigner for Refugee and Migrant Rights Campaign for Amnesty International UK.
“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 added. .