Channel tragedy: at least 27 dead after the sinking of a migrant boat off the French coast

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said five women were among the dead, two people had been rescued and one was still missing. An initial report indicated that 31 people had died, but the minister revised this number to 27 on Wednesday evening.

Four suspected traffickers accused of being directly linked to the doomed crossing point have been arrested, Darmanin said, according to Agence France-Presse.

The International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project said the tragedy was the biggest loss of life in the English Channel since they began collecting data in 2014.

The narrow waterway between Britain and France is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Refugees and migrants fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty in the poorest or war-torn countries risk the dangerous crossing, often in canoes unfit for travel and at the mercy of smugglers, in the hope of asking asylum or economic opportunities in Britain.

Darmanin said the migrants’ dinghy had deflated and when rescuers arrived it was “deflated like an inflatable backyard pool”, according to Reuters.

“The main culprits of this despicable situation are the smugglers, that is to say the criminals who, for a few thousand euros, organize the trafficking of human beings from Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, Asia and who then use these people to bring them to Belgium, the Netherlands, France, in particular to cross the English Channel and go to Great Britain,” said Darmanin.

Migrants once sought to be smuggled aboard the trucks that regularly crossed the Channel on ferries or by rail from France. But in recent years, this road has become more expensivewith smugglers charging thousands of dollars for each attempt.

So far this year, more than 25,700 people have crossed the Channel to the UK in small boats, according to data compiled by UK news agency PA Media, three times the total for the whole of 2020. On Wednesday alone, French authorities rescued 106 people adrift in various boats in the English Channel, and more than 200 people made the crossing.

Accused of politicizing the migrant crisis

French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson both expressed horror at the tragedy, with Macron saying his country would not let the English Channel become a graveyard. The two leaders agreed to step up joint efforts to prevent migrant crossings but accused each other of not doing enough.

“To the families of the victims, to their loved ones, I want to express my compassion and the unconditional support of France,” Macron said in a statement.

“I assure them that everything will be done to find and condemn those responsible, networks of smugglers who exploit misery and distress, endanger human lives and eventually decimate families.”

In a phone call between the two leaders, Macron called on Johnson to stop politicizing the migrant crisis for domestic political gain, saying he “expects the British to cooperate fully and refrain from politicizing a dramatic situation for political purposes”, according to a reading of their appeal from the Elysée.

He stressed the “shared responsibility of France and the UK” to deal with the migrant crisis at their maritime border, according to the statement.

French Interior Minister Darmanin has accused Britain of not providing enough resources to help France fight Channel crossings.

“The response must also come from Great Britain,” Darmanin said Wednesday evening outside a hospital in Calais, adding that the means that the United Kingdom grants to France “remain minimal compared to the means that we [France] obviously put in place to put more police, more gendarmes, more cameras, more means in general.

Smuggling networks

Macron said France had been working for several months with the UK to dismantle smuggling networks.

“Since the beginning of 2021, thanks to the mobilization of 600 police and gendarmes, 1,552 smugglers have been arrested on the north coast and 44 smuggling networks have been dismantled,” he said.

“Despite this action, 47,000 attempted crossings to Britain have been made since January 1, with 7,800 migrants rescued by our rescue services.”

The country’s sea minister, Annick Girardin, said French, British and Belgian helicopters were searching for the missing.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex called the incident a “tragedy”. “My thoughts are with the many missing and injured, victims of criminal smugglers who exploit their distress and misery,” he said in a tweet.

A boat from a French voluntary sea rescue organization, the National Society for Sea Rescue, arrived at the port of Calais on Wednesday carrying the bodies of migrants.

British Prime Minister Johnson said he was “shocked and appalled, and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea”.

“My thoughts and sympathy go out first and foremost to the victims and their families, and it’s a terrible thing they’ve been through,” Johnson told reporters.

“But I also want to say that this disaster underlines how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way. And it also shows how vital it is that we now step up our efforts to break the economic model of gangsters who send people overboard in this way, and that is why it is so important that we speed up all the measures contained within our borders if possible … so that we distinguish between people who come here legally and people who come here illegally.

He added that the authorities “would leave nothing to chance in the face of the business proposition of human traffickers and gangsters… who literally get away with murder.”

Johnson said it was time for Britain, France and Europe to “step up” and work together. He was due to chair a Cobra emergency committee meeting in response to the tragedy, his spokesman said.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a statement that the tragedy “served as a stark reminder of the dangers of these Channel crossings organized by ruthless criminal gangs”.

She added: “We will continue to intensify all cooperation with France and other European partners to prevent migrants from embarking on these deadly journeys.”

Beth Gardiner-Smith, CEO of NGO Safe Passage International, said the deaths could have been avoided and called on the UK Home Secretary to resign.

“More and more people are risking the frigid and frightening journey across the English Channel in unsteady little boats since the government closed safe routes to the UK last year,” Gardiner-Smith said. “By choosing to play politics with people’s lives, the government has failed to stop people from risking the crossing and this is the result. The government must act now to save lives by opening safe routes .”

On Monday, the French Interior Ministry announced it was sending equipment and vehicles worth more than 11 million euros ($12.3 million) as part of a deal with the Grande -Bretagne, “to secure the coastal strip extending over 130 kilometers (80 miles), from Dunkirk to the Baie de Somme.”

He added that “the police and gendarmes will have additional means to carry out the mission of combating illegal immigration”.

Last week, 243 people were rescued in the English Channel as they tried to cross to the UK.

CNN’s Amy Cassidy, Joseph Ataman, Cyril Vanier, Sarah Dean, Hamdi Alkhshali and Jonny Hallam contributed to this report.