PARIS – At least 31 people drowned in cold water off the coast of France on Wednesday after a boat carrying migrants trying to reach Britain capsized in the English Channel, one of the worst death tolls in recent years for migrants attempting the dangerous crossing.
Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, said the dead, including five women and a little girl, were part of a group whose “extremely fragile” rubber dinghy was found completely emptied by rescuers.
Two people were rescued but taken to hospital with severe hypothermia. It was still unclear where the migrants came from, Darmanin told reporters from Calais.
“It is an absolute tragedy that fills us with anger,” he said.
The drowning came just days after French and British authorities reached an agreement to do more to stop the number of people going to sea. They were also a strong reminder of that five years after the authorities dismantled a large-scale migrant camp in Calaisboth countries are still struggling to cope with the influx of migrants in the area.
“France will not turn the canal into a cemetery,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement. He called for an immediate tightening of border controls and an increased crackdown on immigrant smugglers with other European nations. Mr. Darmanin noted, for example, that smugglers sometimes bought boats in Germany and brought them to France for human trafficking.
Local shipping authorities said they quickly dispatched rescue vessels and helicopters after a fishing vessel alerted them that several people had been lost off the coast of Calais.
Attempts to reach the UK by boat have increased in recent years as authorities crack down on the smuggling of asylum seekers into lorries crossing the Channel Tunnel.
Since the beginning of the year, 47,000 attempts have been made to cross the canal and 7,800 migrants had been rescued from shipwrecks, according to French officials. Seven people had died or disappeared so far this year before the incident on Wednesday.
Last week, Decathlon, a major sporting goods chain, announced that it had stopped selling kayaks in its stores in Calais and in Grande-Synthe, another town on the north coast, as they could endanger the lives of migrants trying to use them to get over them. . the channel.
Many migrants – who often come from countries in Africa or the Middle East such as Iraq and Eritrea – perceive the UK as an ideal destination because English is spoken, because they already have family or other compatriots there and because the labor market is looser. regulated for undocumented migrants.
However, the recent increase in attempts to cross the English Channel by boat reflects a change in routes rather than an increase in migration, according to migration experts and rights groups, which says that asylum applications in the UK are down overall this year.
The intersections have become another element in the deteriorating relations between France and Britain, where both sides accuse the other of not doing enough to curb the attempts. Under an agreement between the two nations, Britain pays France to crack down on crossings through surveillance and patrolling.
Mr. Darmanin, the interior minister, said on Wednesday alone there were 780 police and gendarmes looking at the coast. More than 250 people crossed the intersection, he said, and 671 were arrested.
“It was therefore a day like any other, unfortunately,” he added. He said the most responsible for the tragedy were smugglers asking migrants for thousands of euros in exchange for unsafe passage on thin ships.
Four smugglers with suspected connections to the boat that sank on Wednesday have been arrested, Darmanin said.
Migrant rights groups have been particularly critical of British officials who, they say, have adopted an increasingly harsh attitude towards asylum seekerseven threatened to shoot back boats towards France.
“This situation is the result of Britain’s shameful policies,” said Pierre Henry, former head of France Terre D’Asile, a migrant rights group. “France can no longer be a subcontractor to that kind of migration policy. It is absurd and inefficient. It only ends up being more expensive for the most dangerous form of crossing. What happened today must happen.”
France has also been criticized by non-profit groups who say police are harassing migrants in the area around Calais to get them to leave. And Human Rights Watch Report from October described the tactics as “forced misery” – restricting food and water distribution, cutting tents and confiscating sleeping bags and repeatedly evicting them from the camps.
Olivier Caremelle, a local official and former chief of staff for the mayor of Grande-Synthe, who has long protected migrants and refugees, said Wednesday’s deaths were “to be expected” given the significant risks posed by the cold sea in the English Channel, heavy shipping and changing weather.
The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson said he was “shocked and appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea in the canal.” But, he added: “I also want to say that this disaster underscores how dangerous it is to cross the canal in this way.”
The French authorities have regularly cleared migrant camps near Calais, offering migrants the opportunity to move to a shelter and submit asylum applications. But many migrants prefer to continue their travels to the UK. One such camp, home to about 1,000 people in Grande-Synthe, was cleared last week.
Migrants will continue to try to cross the canal, Caremelle said, and are determined to “get on boats and try their luck in England.” Only a policy that would try to find them opportunities in France “would convince some of them not to take such risks,” he said.