Angela Charlton and Sylvia Hui | Associated Press
PARIS. At least 31 migrants heading to the UK were killed Wednesday when their boat sank in the English Channel in what the French Interior Minister described as the biggest tragedy involving migrants on a dangerous crossing to date.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said there were 34 people on board. Authorities found 31 bodies and two survivors, and one person appears to be still missing. The travelers’ nationality was not disclosed.
The joint Franco-British operation to search for survivors was still going on late Wednesday.
Four suspected traffickers were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of involvement in a sunken boat, Darmanin told reporters in the French port city of Calais. According to him, the two suspects were later brought to trial.
The regional prosecutor opened an investigation into aggravated manslaughter after the death.
“This is a day of great mourning for France, for Europe, for humanity, when these people die at sea,” said Darmanin.
He called for coordination with the UK, stating that “the answer must also come from the UK.”
Noting other deadly incidents of migrants in the same waters in the past, Darmanin lashed out at “criminal traffickers” who were taking thousands of people out at the risk of crossing the border.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a meeting of the government’s crisis committee, and Darmanin hurried to visit the survivors at Calais Hospital. The two governments have long since argued over how to prevent the crossings, and both sides blamed each other for not doing enough.
Johnson said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened.”
A French naval boat found several bodies in the water around 2:00 pm and recovered an unknown number of dead and wounded, including those who were unconscious, a naval official said.
According to the region’s French Maritime Agency, the three French patrol boats were joined by a French helicopter and a British helicopter to survey the area.
Jean-Marc Pusseseau, 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.
“Traffickers are killers,” he said. “We were waiting for something like this to happen.”
Although fatalities are reported from time to time during the crossing, such a large number of people perishing on the same boat is rare.
People fleeing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Sudan were among those who gathered along cities in northern France trying to cross into the UK.
The number of migrants using small boats to cross the canal has skyrocketed this year, despite high risks that worsen in fall weather.
More than 25,700 people have made the perilous journey in small boats this year – three times more than in all of 2020.
In conditions of changeable weather, cold seas and heavy sea traffic, the crossing is dangerous for inflatable boats and other small boats, into which men, women and children are squeezed.
In recent weeks, French and British authorities have detained thousands of migrants both off the French and British coasts in a multitude of rescue operations.
Darmanin insisted that France had made every effort to prevent fatal crossings, saved 7,800 people since January, and stopped 671 people trying to cross on one Wednesday.
“How many times do we have to see people lose their lives trying to get to a safe place in the UK because of the regrettable lack of safe means to do so?” said Tom Davis, campaign manager for Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights campaign.
“We desperately need a new approach to asylum, including a genuine Anglo-French effort to develop safe asylum routes to avoid a repeat of similar tragedies,” he added.
Johnson said more needs to be done to “break the business model of gangsters who send people to sea in this way.”