At least 27 migrants trying to reach England from France died on Wednesday when their boat sank off the northern French coast, the deadliest disaster since the English Channel became a hub for clandestine crossings.
French President Emmanuel Macron vowed that France would not allow the Channel to become a “cemetery” and also spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to agree on stepping up efforts to thwart the traffickers blamed for the surge in crossings.
“It is Europe’s deepest values — humanism, respect for the dignity of each person — that are in mourning,” Macron said.
The disaster caused the highest death toll since at least 2018 when migrants began using boats en masse to cross the Channel.
Prosecutors opened a manslaughter probe after the boat sank off the northern port city of Calais.
French Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin said that four suspected traffickers accused of being directly linked to the doomed crossing in a long inflatable boat had been arrested.
Darmanin told reporters in Calais that only two survivors had been found and both of their lives were in danger.
Five women and one little girl were among those who died, he said, while Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart said that a pregnant woman was also one of those killed.
The nationality of the migrants was not immediately clear.
An initial toll said that 31 migrants had died, but the French Ministry of the Interior later revised this down to 27.
French officials said earlier that three helicopters and three boats had searched the area, discovering corpses and people unconscious in the water, after a fisherman sounded the alarm.
Johnson said that he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea.”
He also said that Britain had faced “difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that the situation deserves.”
Britain has urged tougher action from France to stop migrants from making the voyage.
The issue has added to growing post-Brexit strains between Britain and France, with a row on fishing rights also still unresolved.
“The response must obviously also come from Britain,” Darmanin said, calling for “a very tough coordinated international response.”
In telephone talks, Johnson and Macron agreed on the “urgency of stepping up joint efforts to prevent these deadly crossings” and that “it is vital to keep all options on the table” to break the business model of the smuggling gangs, Downing Street said.
One of the French lifeboat workers, Charles Devos, described seeing “a flat, deflated inflatable boat with the little air that remained helping it float” surrounded by bodies of people who had drowned.
Pierre Roques of the Auberge des Migrants non-governmental organization in Calais said that the Channel risked becoming as deadly as the Mediterranean Sea, which has seen a much higher toll from the migrants crossing.
“People are dying in the Channel, which is becoming a cemetery,” Roques said. “And as England is right opposite, people will continue to cross.”
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