PARIS — 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. One person appeared to still be missing. The nationalities of the travelers were not immediately known.
Ever-increasing numbers of people fleeing conflict or poverty are risking the perilous journey in small, unseaworthy craft from France, hoping to get asylum or better opportunities in Britain.
A joint French-British search operation for survivors was still under way late Wednesday.
Investigation into suspected traffickers has been opened
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 said 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 called for coordination with the U.K., saying "the response must also come from Great Britain."
Noting other deadly past incidents involving migrants in the same waters, Darmanin lashed out at "criminal traffickers" driving thousands to risk the crossing.
France and Britain at odds over how to prevent crossings
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson convened a meeting of the government's crisis committee, and Darmanin rushed to see survivors in a Calais hospital.
The two governments have long been at odds over how to prevent the crossings, with both sides blaming the other for not doing enough.
Johnson said he was "shocked, appalled and deeply saddened." He urged France to step up efforts to stem the flow of migrants across the English Channel, and said that Wednesday's incident highlighted how efforts by French authorities to patrol their beaches "haven't been enough."
He reiterated that Britain wants to work with the French to "break the business model" of gangsters.
"Our offer is to increase our support but also to work together with our partners on the beaches concerned, on the launching grounds for these boats," Johnson told reporters. "We've had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves."
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 brought some of the bodies to the Calais port.
"Traffickers are assassins," he said. "We were waiting for something like this to happen."
While deaths are occasionally reported on the crossing, such a large number of people losing their lives in one boat is rare.
The number of boat crossings has grown sharply
Migrants from around the world have long used northern France as a launching point to reach Britain, either by stowing away in trucks or in dinghies and other small boats organized by smugglers. People fleeing conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Sudan have been among those gathered along towns in northern France.
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.
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.
Darmanin insisted that France has worked hard to prevent crossings, rescuing 7,800 people since January and stopping 671 who were trying to cross on Wednesday alone.
"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.