Posted by Michelle Spingler and Sylvia Hui.
CALE, France (AP) – At least 31 migrants bound for the UK were killed Wednesday when their boat sank in the Channel in what the French interior minister called the biggest tragedy of migrants on a dangerous crossing to date.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said there were 34 people on board. Authorities found 31 bodies, including the bodies of five women and a young girl, as well as two survivors, he said. One person is still missing. The nationality of the travelers was not immediately known.
An ever-growing number of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere risk embarking on a perilous journey in a small, unsewable ship from France in the hopes of seeking refuge or better opportunities in the UK. The number of crossings this year has tripled compared to 2020.
A joint French-British operation to find survivors was canceled late Wednesday night. Both countries are working together to stop migration across the English Channel, but they also blame each other for not doing enough – a point often used by politicians on both sides pushing an anti-migration agenda.
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, organized illegal migration and other charges after the death. Lille prosecutor Carole Etienne, whose office is overseeing the investigation, said officials are still working to identify the victims and determine their age and nationality.
She told The Associated Press that the investigation could affect several countries as more information about passengers emerges.
“This is a day of great mourning for France, for Europe, for humanity, when these people die at sea,” said Darmanin. He lashed out at the “criminal human traffickers” who forced thousands of people to risk crossing the border.
On Wednesday night, activists held a demonstration outside the port of Calais, accusing governments of not doing enough to meet the needs of migrants. Hundreds of people live in dire conditions on the French coast, despite regular police patrols and evacuation operations.
The bodies were taken to Calais. “Traffickers are killers,” Jean-Marc Puisso, head of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, told AP. “We were waiting for something like this to happen.”
Darmanin called for coordination with the UK, saying that “the answer must also come from the UK.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has called for an immediate increase in funding for the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, and an emergency meeting of European government ministers “concerned about migration,” according to his office. “France will not allow the English Channel to become a cemetery,” Macron said, according to his office.
The French government is holding an emergency meeting Thursday morning to discuss next steps.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a government crisis committee meeting and said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened.”
He called on France to step up efforts to stem the flow of migrants and said Wednesday’s incident showed how “insufficient” efforts by French authorities to patrol its beaches are.
He reiterated that Britain wants to work with the French to “break the business model” of the smuggling gangs.
“We propose to increase our support and also work with our partners on the respective beaches, on the launching sites for these boats,” Johnson told reporters. “We found it difficult to convince some of our partners, especially the French, to act in what we think the situation deserves.”
In recent weeks, French and British authorities have detained thousands of migrants in the Channel in dozens of rescue operations.
Darmanin insists France has made every effort to prevent crossings, rescuing 7,800 people since January and stopping 671 people trying to cross the border on Wednesday alone.
A French naval boat spotted several bodies in the water around 2:00 pm, and rescue boats pulled several dead and injured people into the surrounding waters, a spokesman for the maritime authorities said. French patrol boats, a French helicopter and a British helicopter searched the area.
Although fatalities are reported from time to time during the crossing, such large casualties on the same boat are an exception.
Migrants from all over the world have long used northern France as a starting point to reach Britain by hiding in trucks or using lifeboats and other small boats organized by smugglers. Many want to come to the UK in search of economic opportunities, either because of family and community ties, or because their attempts to obtain asylum in the EU have failed. French authorities say another big benefit is the weakness of UK regulations on undocumented migrants.
The number of small craft crossings has skyrocketed this year, despite high risks that worsen in autumn weather.
This year, more than 25,700 people have passed it – three times more than in the entire 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.
“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.
Hui reported from London. Angela Charlton from Paris, Jill Lawless and Pan Pilas from London contributed to this report.
Follow the global coverage of AP migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration