At least 31 people died Wednesday after their boat capsized while crossing the English Channel from France to Britain, in the worst disaster on record involving migrants in the waters that separate the countries.
The Canal is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and the currents are strong. Overloaded boats often barely stay afloat and are at the mercy of the waves as they try to reach British shores.
More migrants left the shores of northern France than usual to take advantage of calm sea conditions on Wednesday, according to fishermen, although the water was bitterly cold.
A fisherman called rescue services after seeing an empty boat and people floating motionless nearby.
Franck Dhersin, deputy director of regional transport and mayor of Teteghem on the northern coast of France, told Reuters that the death toll had reached 31 and that two people were still missing.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said he was heading for the coast. “Strong emotion at the tragedy of numerous deaths due to the capsizing of a migrant boat in the English Channel,” he wrote in a tweet.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will chair an emergency meeting on Wednesday, his spokesman said.
Three helicopters, police and rescue boats were still at the scene, searching for the missing people from the capsized ship, Maritime Affairs Minister Annick Girardin said.
The local coast guard said they could not yet confirm the total number of deaths.
A fisherman, Nicolas Margolle, told Reuters he had seen two small boats on Wednesday, one with people on board and the other empty.
He said another fisherman had called rescue services after seeing an empty boat and 15 people floating motionless nearby, unconscious or dead.
He confirmed that there were more boats on Wednesday because the weather was nice. “But it’s cold,” Margolle added.
Earlier Wednesday, Reuters reporters saw a group of more than 40 migrants heading for Britain in a boat.
While French police have prevented more crossings than in previous years, they have only partially halted the flow of migrants wanting to reach Britain, one of the many sources of tension between Paris and London.
Some rights groups said that tighter surveillance was pushing migrants to take greater risks as they sought a better life in the West.
“To accuse only smugglers is to hide the responsibility of the French and British authorities,” said the NGO l’Auberge des Migrantes.
Before Wednesday’s disaster, 14 people had drowned this year trying to reach Britain, a local maritime prefecture official said. In 2020 a total of seven people died and two disappeared, while in 2019 four died.