By Angela Charlton and Sylvia Hui | The Associated Press
PARIS – At least 31 migrants bound for Britain died on Wednesday when their boat sank in the English Channel, in what France’s interior minister called the biggest tragedy involving migrants at the dangerous crossing.
Interior Minister Gerald Dormann said 34 people were believed to be on the boat. Authorities found 31 bodies and two survivors, and one person is still missing. The nationality of the passengers was not released.
A joint French-British operation to find the survivors continued late on Wednesday.
Darmanin told reporters in the French port city of Calais that four suspected smugglers suspected of being linked to the sunken boat were arrested on Wednesday. Later, two suspects were produced in the court, he said.
The regional prosecutor launched a serious murder investigation after the drowning.
“It is a day of great mourning for France, for Europe, for humanity to see these people die at sea,” Dormanin said.
“The response must also come from Great Britain,” he called for coordination with the UK.
Noting other deadly past incidents involving migrants in the same waters, Darmanin attacked “criminal smugglers” driving thousands to risk the crossing.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a meeting of the government’s crisis committee, and Dormanin rushed to see survivors at a Calais hospital. The two governments have long been at odds over how to stop the crossing, with both sides accusing each other of not doing enough.
Johnson said he was “shocked, shocked and deeply saddened.”
A maritime authority spokesman said a French naval boat found several bodies in the water around 2 p.m. and retrieved an unknown number of dead and wounded, some unconscious.
According to the French Maritime Agency for the Area, three French patrol boats were involved in the search of the area by a French helicopter and a British helicopter.
Jean-Marc Puisseau, chief 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 murderers,” he said. “We were waiting for something like this to happen.”
While deaths are occasionally reported at crossings, such a large number of lives being lost in a single boat is rare.
Those fleeing conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Sudan are among those trying to get to Britain in towns in northern France.
Despite the high risk in the autumn season, there has been a sharp increase in the number of migrants using small boats to cross the canal this year.
More than 25,700 people have made the perilous journey in small boats this year – tripling the total for the whole of 2020.
With the changing weather, cold seas and heavy sea traffic, the crossing is dangerous for inflatables and other small boats that men, women and children squeeze into.
French and British officials have picked up thousands of migrants from both the French and British coasts in recent weeks in a series of rescue operations.
Dormanin stressed that France had worked hard to prevent the deadly crossing, having saved 7,800 people since January and stopped 671 people trying to cross on Wednesday alone.
“How often should we see people lose their lives in Britain because of a lack of safe means of protection?” Tom Davies, refugee and migrant rights campaign manager for Amnesty International UK.
“We are in dire need of a new approach to asylum, which includes genuine Anglo-French efforts to create safe asylum routes to avoid such tragedies from happening again,” he said.
Johnson said that “more needs to be done to break the business model of gangsters sending people to sea like this.”