A group of more than 40 migrants run on the beach near Wimereux, France, with an inflatable dinghy, intending to leave the coast of northern France and to cross the English Channel.—Reuters
A group of more than 40 migrants run on the beach near Wimereux, France, with an inflatable dinghy, intending to leave the coast of northern France and to cross the English Channel.—Reuters

CALAIS: At least 27 migrants died on Wednesday crossing from France to England when their boat sank off the port of Calais, French authorities said, the deadliest disaster since the sea route began to be widely used in 2018.

The French interior ministry said in a statement that patrol vessels found corpses and people unconscious in the water after a fisherman sounded the alarm.

French police then said that 27 people had died after setting out from Dunkirk east of Calais in a boat with some 50 people on board.

Three helicopters and three boats took take part in the search, local authorities said. French prosecutors have opened a manslaughter probe while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to hold a crisis meeting.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who is heading to the scene, wrote on Twitter that “many people” had died in the incident, adding that “the criminal nature of the smugglers who organise these crossings cannot be condemned enough”.

“The disaster in the Channel is a tragedy,” Prime Minister Jean Castex tweeted.

“My thoughts are with the many missing and injured, victims of criminal smugglers who exploit their distress and misery.” The disaster, the worst single loss of life since at least 2018 when migrant began using boats en masse to cross the Channel, comes as tensions grow between London and Paris over the record numbers of people crossing.

Britain has urged tougher action from France to stop migrants from making the voyage.

Pierre Roques, coordinator of the Auberge des Migrants NGO in Calais, said the Channel risked becoming as deadly for migrants as the Mediterranean which has seen a much heavier toll over the last years of migrants crossing.

“People are dying in the Channel, which is becoming a cemetery. And as England is right opposite, people will continue to cross.” According to the French authorities, 31,500 people attempted to leave for Britain since the start of the year and 7,800 people have been rescued at sea, figures which doubled since August. Seven people have been confirmed dead or are still missing feared drowned after various incidents this year.

In Britain, Johnson’s government is coming under intense pressure, including from its own supporters, to reduce the numbers crossing. French police said this week they detained 15 suspected members of an international migrant smuggling syndicate that helped people illegally cross the Channel to Britain.

The network of Iraqi Kurds, Romanians, Pakistanis and Vietnamese helped at least 250 people each month cross to England, taking 60 migrants at a time in small boats. Passage to England would cost a migrant 6,000 euros ($6,800) and the smugglers racked up some 3 million euros ($3.4 million) in total profits, said the police.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2021

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