At least 31 drown as migrant boat sinks in English Channel

At least 31 migrants bound for Britain died on Wednesday when their boat sank in the English Channel.
At least 31 drown as migrant boat sinks in English Channel

Migrants are helped ashore from a Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat at Dungeness in southeast England on Wednesday. Dozens of others died in a separate sinking.

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 dangerous crossing to date.

Interior Minister 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 appeared to still be missing. The nationalities of the travelers was not immediately known.

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

Ever-increasing numbers of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere are risking the perilous journey in small, unseaworthy craft from France, hoping to win asylum or find better opportunities in Britain. The crossings have tripled this year from 2020, and another 106 migrants were rescued in French waters on Wednesday alone.

A joint French-British search operation for survivors of the sinking was called off late on Wednesday. Both 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 pushing 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 into aggravated manslaughter, organized illegal migration and other charges after the sinking.

Lille Prosecutor Carole Etienne said officials were still working to identify the victims and determine their ages and nationalities, and that the investigation may involve multiple countries.

"It's a day of great mourning for France, for Europe, for humanity to see these people die at sea," Darmanin said. He lashed out at "criminal traffickers" driving thousands to risk the crossing. Activists demonstrated outside the port of Calais on Wednesday night, accusing governments of not doing enough to respond to migrants' needs. Hundreds of people live in precarious conditions along the French coast, despite regular police patrols and evacuation operations.

The bodies were brought to the Calais port, said Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the ports of Calais and Boulogne. "We were waiting for something like this to happen," he said, given the growing numbers of people risking the passage. Aid groups blamed European governments for increasingly hard-line migration policies.

"The UK is not a choice, it is an escape, an escape for people fleeing the lack of welcome in Europe," said Nikolai Posner of French charity Utopia 56.

Darmanin urged coordination with the UK, saying "the response must also come from Great Britain."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke after the sinking and agreed "that it is vital to keep all options on the table to stop these lethal crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs behind them," Johnson's office said. Macron stressed "the shared responsibility" of France and the UK.

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