Several migrants destined for the United Kingdom die in the English Channel off Calais


CALAIS, France (AP) – 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 date.

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 nationality of the travelers was not immediately known.

An ever-increasing number of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere risk the perilous journey aboard small non-navigable boats from France, in the hope of obtaining asylum or to find better opportunities in Great Britain. Crossings have tripled this year compared to 2020.

A joint Franco-British search for survivors was canceled Wednesday evening. The two countries cooperate to stem migration across the Channel, but also accuse each other of not doing enough – and the issue is often used by politicians on both sides to promote an anti-migration agenda.

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 told The Associated Press that the investigation could involve multiple countries as more information on the passengers 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 attacked “criminal traffickers” leading thousands of people to risk the crossing.

Activists demonstrated outside the port of Calais on Wednesday evening, accusing governments of not doing enough to meet the needs of migrants. Hundreds of people live in precarious conditions along the French coast, despite regular police patrols and evacuation operations.

The bodies were brought to Calais. “The traffickers are murderers,” Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, told the AP. “We were waiting for something like this to happen.”

Darmanin called for coordination with the UK, saying “the response must also come from Britain”.

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 ministers from European governments “concerned about the migration challenge”, according to his office. “France will not allow the 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 meeting of the government’s crisis committee and said he was “shocked, dismayed and deeply saddened”.

He urged France to step up efforts to stem the flow of migrants, and said Wednesday’s incident highlighted how French authorities’ efforts to patrol their beaches “have not been sufficient” .

He reiterated that Britain wants to work with the French to “break the business model” of smuggling gangs.

“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.

French and British authorities have recovered thousands of migrants in the Channel in recent weeks, during dozens of rescue operations.

Darmanin insisted France has worked hard to prevent crossings, saving 7,800 people since January and stopping 671 who tried to cross on Wednesday alone.

A French navy boat spotted several bodies in the water around 2 p.m. and rescue boats recovered several dead and injured in surrounding waters, a spokesperson for the maritime authority said. French patrol boats, a French helicopter and a British helicopter searched the area.

While fatalities are sometimes reported during the crossing, such loss of life in a single boat is exceptional.

Migrants from all over the world have long used the north of France as a starting point to reach Britain by packing up in trucks or using canoes and other small boats organized by smugglers. Many want to reach the UK in search of economic opportunities or because of family and community ties, or because their efforts to seek asylum in the EU have failed. The French authorities say that another big draw is the laxity of the British rules towards migrants without residency papers.

The number of crossings in small boats has increased sharply this year, despite the high risks which worsen with the autumn weather.

More than 25,700 people have undertaken it so far 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.

“How many times do we still see people lose their lives trying to get to safety in the UK due to the dire 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. .

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Hui reported from London. Angela Charlton in Paris, Jill Lawless and Pan Pylas in London contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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