At least 31 migrants en route to the UK died on Wednesday when their boat sank in the English Channel at the dangerous border crossing in the “greatest tragedy” of migration, France’s interior minister said.
According to Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, 34 people are said to have been on the boat. Authorities found 31 bodies and two survivors. One person seemed to be missing.
A joint Franco-British operation to find survivors was ongoing on Wednesday evening.
While the incident was the deadliest day in the Canal to date, Darmanin noticed other fatal incidents in the past and hit out “criminal traffickers” who tricked thousands into risking the crossing.
The nationalities of the travelers were not published.
The UK Prime Minister convened a meeting of the government’s crisis committee and France’s Home Secretary rushed to see survivors at a hospital in Calais. The two governments have long been at odds over how to prevent increasingly dangerous migrant transitions, and both sides blame the other for not doing enough.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened”.
A French naval boat discovered several bodies in the water around 2 p.m. and brought an unknown number of dead and injured, including some who were unconscious, a spokesman for the shipping authority said.
Three French patrol boats were supported by a French helicopter and a British helicopter in the search of the area, as the French maritime authority for the region announced.
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 port of Calais.
“Smugglers are assassins,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for something like this to happen.”
While deaths are occasionally reported on the crossing, such a large number of people who lose their lives in a boat is rare.
The nationalities of the victims were not immediately disclosed. People who fled the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Sudan have gathered in cities in northern France to make their way to the UK.
“Strong emotions after the drama of numerous deaths in the sinking of a migrant boat in the canal,” tweeted Darmanin. He criticized the smuggling networks that organize such trips.
The Dunkirk public prosecutor announced that they had opened a criminal investigation into serious manslaughter after the tragedy.
The number of migrants crossing the canal in small boats has risen sharply this year, despite the high risks exacerbated by the autumn weather. Several people are said to have reached Britain in small boats on Wednesday.
More than 25,700 people made the dangerous journey in small boats this year – three times as many as in all of 2020.
In changeable weather, cold seas and heavy sea traffic, the crossing is dangerous for the rubber dinghies and other small boats into which men, women and children squeeze.
French and British authorities have taken in thousands of migrants in numerous bailouts over the past few weeks off both the French and British coasts.
“How many more times do we have to see people lose their lives trying to get to safety in the UK because of a lack of safe means?
“We urgently need a new approach to asylum, including a real Anglo-French effort to develop safe asylum routes to prevent such tragedies from happening again,” he added.
Johnson said more needs to be done to “break the business model of the gangsters who send people out to sea this way.”