Migrant boat capsizes in the English Channel. At least 31 dead
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 described as the biggest migration tragedy at the dangerous crossing yet.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanen said he believed 34 people were on board. He said authorities found 31 bodies—including the bodies of five women and a girl—and two survivors. It seems that one person is still missing. The nationalities of the travelers were not immediately known.
Increasing numbers of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere are risking a perilous journey in small, unseaworthy boats from France, hoping to seek asylum or find better opportunities in Britain. The number of crossings this year has tripled compared to 2020, and another 106 migrants were rescued in French waters on Wednesday alone.
A joint French-British search for drowning survivors late Wednesday has been called off. The two countries cooperate to stop migration through the canal, but they also accuse each other of not doing enough – and politicians on both sides often use the issue to advance an anti-immigration agenda.
Darmanin told reporters in Calais that four suspected smugglers had been arrested on Wednesday in connection with the sinking boat. He said that two suspects later appeared in court.
The regional public prosecutor opened an investigation into aggravated premeditated murder, organized illegal immigration and other charges after the drowning. Lille’s chief prosecutor, Carole Etienne, told The Associated Press that officials were still working to identify victims and determine their ages and nationalities, and that the investigation could involve several countries.
“It is a great day of mourning for France, Europe and humanity to see these people die at sea,” Darmanin said. He criticized “criminal traffickers” who paid thousands to risk crossing.
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 are living in precarious conditions along the French coast, despite regular police patrols and evacuations.
The bodies were taken to the port of Calais, Jean-Marc Boisisso, head of the Calais and Boulogne ports, told the Associated Press. “We were waiting for something like this to happen,” he said, given the increasing numbers of people taking the risk.
Aid groups have blamed European governments for increasingly tough immigration policies. “The UK is not an option, it’s an escape, a getaway for people fleeing the lack of welcome in Europe,” said Nikolai Posner of the French charity Utopia 56.
Darmanin called for coordination with the United Kingdom, saying “the response must also come from Great Britain.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke after Wednesday’s tragedy and agreed that “it is essential to keep all options on the table to stop these deadly crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs behind them,” Johnson’s office said.
Downing Street said the two leaders “stressed the importance of working closely with neighbors in Belgium and the Netherlands as well as with partners across the continent if we are to address 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 increased funding for the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, and convened 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 government crisis committee meeting and said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened”.
He urged France to intensify efforts to stem the flow of migrants, and said Wednesday’s incident highlighted that French authorities’ efforts to patrol its shores were “not enough”.
“We had difficulties 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 that France had worked hard to prevent crossings, rescuing 7,800 people since January and stopping 671 trying to cross on Wednesday alone.
A spokesman for the Maritime Authority said that a French navy boat spotted several bodies in the waters around 2 pm, and that rescue boats had retrieved many dead and wounded from the surrounding waters. French patrol boats, a French helicopter and a British helicopter searched the area.
More than 25,700 people have made these dangerous boat trips so far this year – three times the total for all of 2020. With changing weather, cold seas, and heavy marine traffic, the crossing poses a danger to inflatables and other small boats used by men, women, and children to press.
Immigrants from all over the world have long used northern France as a springboard to reach Britain by disguising in trucks or using boats and other small boats organized by smugglers. Many want to come to the UK in search of economic opportunity, because of family and community ties, or because their efforts to obtain asylum in the European Union have failed. French authorities say the other big draw is Britain’s lax rules on migrants without residency papers.
The total number of people applying for asylum in Britain is down slightly from last year, and Britain receives fewer asylum seekers than comparable European countries such as Germany or France.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 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 more died in the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa on the migrants’ route to Spain’s Canary Islands.
Tom Davies, Director of the Campaign for Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International UK said: “How often should we see people losing their lives trying to reach safety in the UK due to the appalling lack of safe means to do so?”
“We urgently need a new approach to asylum, including genuine Anglo-French efforts to devise safe asylum methods to avoid such tragedies from happening again,” he added.
Hue reported from London. Angela Charlton in Paris and Jill Lawless and Pan Bellas in London contributed to this report.
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