PARIS (AP) — At least 27 migrants bound for Britain died when their boat sank in the English Channel in an unusually deadly sinking on the dangerous crossing, according to a French police official.
A joint French-British operation to search for survivors was still under way Wednesday evening. About 50 people were believed to be in the boat when it sank, according to the official, who was not authorized to be publicly named. The nationalities of the travelers was not released.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
PARIS (AP) — A boat carrying migrants capsized Wednesday in the English Channel while attempting to cross from France to Britain, killing an unspecified number of people, French authorities said. Dozens were feared dead.
Although officials offered few confirmed details, it appeared to be one of the deadliest days in the channel in recent memory. Britain's prime minister convened a meeting of the government's crisis committee, and France's interior minister rushed to see survivors in a Calais hospital. The two governments have been at odds over how to prevent the increasingly dangerous migrant crossings.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was holding a meeting of the government’s crisis committee, COBRA, in response to the channel tragedy, said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened."
“I think the details are still coming in, but more than 20 people have lost their lives," Johnson said.
The local lawmaker for Calais, Pierre-Henri Dumont, told Sky News that the latest information indicated 29 people had died and five were missing.
A French naval boat spotted several bodies in the water around 2 p.m. and retrieved an unknown number of dead and injured, including some who were unconscious, a maritime authority spokesperson said.
Three French patrol boats were joined by a French helicopter and a British helicopter in searching the area, according to the French maritime agency for the region.
Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, told The Associated Press that he spoke to one of the rescuers, who said as many as 30 people had died.
The rescuer brought some of the bodies to the Calais port, Puissesseau said.
“Traffickers are assassins,” he said. “We were waiting for something like this to happen.”
Franck Dhersin, a vice president for the surrounding region, tweeted that 24 bodies were pulled from the water after a boat carrying about 50 migrants sunk. But he did not provide a source, and maritime authorities and local police said the total number of dead remained unclear.
While deaths are occasionally reported on the crossing, such a large number of people losing their lives in one boat would be exceptional.
The victims' nationalities were not immediately released. People fleeing conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Sudan have been among those gathered along towns in northern France seeking to cross to Britain.
“Strong emotion after the drama of numerous dead in the sinking of a boat of migrants in the channel,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin tweeted. He slammed migrant smuggling networks that organize such journeys and headed to a Calais hospital to see the victims.
The Dunkirk prosecutor’s office said it opened an investigation for aggravated manslaughter in the wake of the tragedy.
The number of migrants using small boats to cross the channel has grown sharply this year, despite the high risks that are worsening in autumn weather. A number of people are also believed to have reached Britain in small boats on Wednesday.
More than 25,700 people have made the dangerous journey in small boats this year — three times the total for the whole of 2020.
With changeable weather, cold seas and heavy maritime traffic, the crossing is dangerous for the inflatables and other small boats that men, women and children squeeze into.
French and British authorities have picked up thousands of migrants off both the French and British coasts in recent weeks in scores of rescue operations. Deaths occasionally occur, but are rare.
“How many more times must we see people lose their life trying to reach safety in the UK because of the woeful lack of safe means to do so?" said Tom Davies, Amnesty International U.K.’s refugee and migrant rights campaign manager.
“We desperately need a new approach to asylum, including genuine Anglo-French efforts to devise safe asylum routes to avoid such tragedies happening again," he added.
Johnson said more needed to be done to “break the business model of the gangsters who are sending people to sea in this way.”
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