CALAIS, France (AP) – At least 31 migrants on their way to Britain died on Wednesday when their boat sank in the English Channel, in what France’s interior minister called the biggest migration tragedy on the dangerous crossing to date.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 34 people are 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. Someone seemed to still be missing. The nationalities of the travelers were not immediately known.
An ever-increasing number of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere risk the perilous journey in small, unseaworthy vessels from France, hoping to win asylum or find better opportunities in Britain. The crossings have tripled this year compared to 2020, and a further 106 migrants were rescued in French waters on Wednesday alone.
A joint Franco-British search operation for survivors of the shipwreck was suspended late Wednesday. Both countries are working together to curb migration across the Channel, but also accuse each other of not doing enough – and the issue is often used by politicians on both sides pushing for an anti-migration agenda.
Four suspected traffickers were arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of being connected 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 launched an investigation into aggravated manslaughter, organized illegal migration and other charges following the shipwreck. Small-scale prosecutor Carole Etienne told the Associated Press that officials were still working to identify the victims and determine their age and nationality, and that the investigation could involve several countries.
“It is a day of great sorrow for France, for Europe, for humanity to see these people die at sea,” Darmanin said. He cracked down on “criminal human traffickers” who drove thousands to risk the passage.
Activists demonstrated outside the port of Calais on Wednesday night, accusing governments of not doing enough to respond to 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 the port of Calais, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, told The AP. “We were waiting for something like this to happen,” he said, given the growing number of people at risk of passage.
Aid groups accused European governments of increasingly harsh migration policies. “Britain is not an election, it is an escape, an escape for people fleeing the lack of welcome in Europe,” said Nikolai Posner of the French charity Utopia 56.
Darmanin called for coordination with Britain, saying “the answer must also come from Britain.”
Speaking after Wednesday’s tragedy, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed, “that it is vital to keep all options on the table to stop these deadly crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs behind them,” Johnsons said. office.
Downing Street said the two leaders “stressed the importance of working closely with neighbors in Belgium and the Netherlands as well as partners across the continent if we are to tackle the problem effectively before people reach the French coast.”
The French government is holding an emergency meeting Thursday morning to discuss the next steps. Macron called for an immediate boost in funding for the EU’s border agency, Frontex, and an emergency meeting of European government ministers, according to his office. “France will not allow the canal to become a cemetery,” Macron said.
Johnson convened a meeting of the government’s crisis committee, saying he was “shocked, shaken and deeply saddened.”
He called on France to step up its efforts to stem the flow of migrants, saying Wednesday’s incident highlighted how the French authorities’ efforts to patrol their beaches “have not been enough.”
“We have had a hard time persuading some of our partners, especially the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves,” he told reporters.
Darmanin insisted France have been working hard to prevent crossings, rescuing 7,800 people since January and stopping 671 who tried to cross on Wednesday alone.
A French naval boat discovered several bodies in the water around 2 p.m., and lifeboats retrieved several dead and wounded from the surrounding waters, a spokesman for the maritime authorities said. French patrol boats, a French helicopter and a British helicopter searched the area.
More than 25,700 people made such dangerous boat trips so far this year – three times the total number for the whole of 2020. With changeable weather, cold sea and dense sea traffic, the crossing is dangerous for inflatable boats and other small boats that men, women and children squeeze into .
Migrants from all over the world have long used northern France as a launching pad to reach Britain by stowing away in trucks or using dinghies and other small boats organized by smugglers. Many want to reach Britain in search of economic opportunities or because of family and community ties, or because their efforts to gain asylum in the EU failed. French authorities say another major drawback is lax UK rules against migrants without residence permits.
The total number of people applying for asylum in the UK has fallen slightly compared to last year, and the UK receives far fewer asylum seekers than comparable European countries such as Germany or France.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says an estimated 1,600 people have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean this year while trying to reach Europe from North Africa or Turkey. Hundreds have died in the Atlantic off the coast of West Africa on a migrant route to Spain’s Canary Islands.
“How many times do we have to watch people lose their lives trying to get to safety in the UK because of the sad lack of safe means to do so?” said Tom Davies, Amnesty International UK’s campaign leader for refugee and migrant rights.
“We desperately need a new approach to asylum, including genuine Anglo-French efforts to devise safe asylum routes to prevent such tragedies from happening again,” he added.
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