France’s interior minister on Wednesday said that “many” migrants had drowned during an attempt to cross the English Channel to Britain, amid reports that more than 20 had died in the worst incident so far in a surge of clandestine small-boat crossings.
Gérald Darmanin wrote on Twitter that he was feeling “shocked” by the disaster of “many” deaths following the capsizing of a boat full of migrants in the Channel.
“We can never condemn enough the criminal behaviour of the smugglers who organise these crossings,” he wrote, adding that he was heading to the scene.
French news agency AFP said it had been told by the police that more than 20 of the migrants had died.
That would make it the worst tragedy since small-boat crossings became a significant means of clandestine migration to the UK around three years ago. The previous worst single incident involved the drowning of four members of an Iranian Kurdish family off Calais in October last year.
Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, called the capsizing a tragedy. “My thoughts are with the dead and injured, victims of criminal gangs who exploit their distress and misery,” he said.
Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, will chair a meeting of the emergency COBR committee on Wednesday afternoon regarding the situation in the English Channel, Downing Street said.
The number of people to have claimed asylum in the UK after crossing the Channel has reached 25,700 for this year so far, more than three times the 8,469 total for all of 2020.
There have been numerous reports of individual deaths. French officials reported at the weekend that 31,500 migrants had left the French coast for England since the start of the year. Of those, 7,800 had been rescued and seven had died or disappeared.
Two helicopters, one from France and one from the UK, and three French vessels were taking part in the continuing rescue operation.
French officials said they were alerted to the disaster by the crew of a fishing boat who saw people in the sea in the Dover-Calais strait.
Smugglers this year have started using larger inflatable boats, to fit more migrants into a single crossing. They have also started launching from a wider range of beaches, sending migrants on longer, more dangerous crossings to evade the French authorities’ attempts to stop them.
Small-boat migration has replaced previous clandestine methods of reaching the UK, such as hiding in trucks, since scrutiny on those routes has been stepped up.
There were numerous small-boat crossings amid very calm weather in the Channel on Wednesday.
A steady stream of UK Border Force cutters was unloading men, women and children arriving at Dover. Large inflatable boats filled with small handpumps for keeping the vessels inflated were also being brought ashore.
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne