Dozens perish as migrant boat capsizes in English Channel

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 interior minister called the biggest migration tragedy on the crossing dangerous today.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 34 people were on board the boat. Authorities recovered 31 bodies – including those of five women and a young girl – and two survivors, he said. One person still seemed missing. The nationality of the travelers was not immediately known.

The regional maritime authority, which oversees rescue operations, later said 27 bodies had been recovered, two people had survived and four others were missing and presumed drowned. The discrepancy in the numbers was not immediately explained.

An ever-increasing number of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere are risking the perilous journey in small unseaworthy boats from France, in the hope of obtaining asylum or find better opportunities in Britain. Crossings have tripled this year compared to 2020, and another 106 migrants were rescued in French waters on Wednesday alone.

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A joint Franco-British search for survivors of the sinking was canceled on Wednesday evening. The two countries are cooperating 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 added that 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 told The Associated Press that officials were still working to identify the victims and determine their ages and nationalities, and that the investigation could involve multiple countries.

“It is a day of great mourning for France, for Europe, for humanity to see these people die at sea,” Darmanin said. He attacked “criminal traffickers” pushing 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 the port of Calais, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, told AP. “We were waiting for something like this to happen,” he said, given the growing number of people risking the crossing.

Aid groups have accused European governments of increasingly tough migration policies. “The UK is not a choice, it’s an escape, an escape for people fleeing the lack of reception in Europe,” said Nikolai Posner of French association Utopia 56.

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

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke out after Wednesday’s tragedy and agreed “it is vital to keep all options on the table to stop these deadly crossings and break the criminal gang business model. 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 effectively address the issue before people do not reach the French coast”.

Macron stressed the ‘shared responsibility’ of France and the UK and told Johnson he expects full cooperation from the British and that they are not using the tragic situation ‘for political purposes’ , said the Elysée.

The French government is holding an emergency meeting on Thursday morning to discuss next steps. Macron has advocated an immediate increase in funding for the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, and an emergency meeting of European government ministers, according to his office. “France will not allow the English Channel to become a cemetery,” Macron said.

Johnson called a government crisis committee meeting and said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened”.

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

“We had difficulty persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves,” he told reporters.

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Darmanin insisted France has worked hard to prevent the crossings, rescuing 7,800 people since January and arresting 671 trying to cross on Wednesday alone.

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

More than 25,700 people have taken such dangerous boat trips so far this year, three times the total for all of 2020. With changeable weather, cold seas and heavy boat traffic, the crossing is dangerous for inflatables and other small boats that men, women and children squeeze into.

Migrants from around the world have long used northern France as a jumping off point to reach Britain by hiding in trucks or using canoes and other small boats organized by smugglers. Many want to come to the UK in search of economic opportunities or because of family and community ties, or because their efforts to gain asylum in the EU have failed. French authorities say another big draw is the laxity of UK rules towards migrants without residency papers.

The total number of people seeking asylum in Britain is down slightly from last year, and Britain is receiving far fewer asylum seekers than comparable European countries like Germany or France .

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says around 1,600 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea this year as they tried to reach Europe from North Africa or Turkey . Hundreds more perished in the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa on a migration route to Spain’s Canary Islands.

“How often do we still have to see people lose their lives trying to reach safety in the UK because of the dire lack of safe means to do so?” said Tom Davies, Head of Amnesty International UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Campaign.

“We desperately need a new approach to asylum, including genuine Anglo-French efforts to design safe asylum pathways to prevent such tragedies from happening again,” he added. .

Angela Charlton in Paris, Sylvie Corbet in Strasbourg, France, Jill Lawless and Pan Pylas in London contributed to this report.