CALAIS, France – At least 31 migrants bound for Britain died Wednesday when their boat sank in the English Channel, in what France's interior minister called the biggest tragedy involving migrants 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, leaving one person missing. The nationalities of the travelers were not immediately known.
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 compared with 2020.
A joint French-British search operation for survivors was called off late 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 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, whose office is overseeing the investigation, said officials were still working to identify the victims and determine their ages and nationalities.
She told the Associated Press the investigation may involve multiple countries as more information about the passengers emerges.
“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.