President Emmanuel Macron said France would not allow the Channel to become a 'cemetery'

Calais (France) (AFP) - At least 31 migrants trying to reach England from France died on Wednesday when their boat sank off the northern French coast, the deadliest disaster since the Channel became a hub for clandestine crossings.

President Emmanuel Macron vowed France would not allow the Channel to become a “cemetery” and called for an emergency meeting of European ministers on the crisis.

“It is Europe’s deepest values – humanism, respect for the dignity of each person – that are in mourning,” Macron said.

The disaster, the worst single loss of life since at least 2018 when migrants began using boats en masse to cross the Channel, comes as tensions grow between London and Paris over the record numbers of people crossing.

Prosecutors opened a manslaughter probe after the boat sank off the northern port city of Calais. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said four suspected traffickers accused of being directly linked to the doomed crossing in a long inflatable boat had been arrested.

Satellite image and map of the Channel between Britain and France.

Darmanin told reporters in Calais that only two survivors had been found and both of their lives were in danger. He said five women and one little girl were among those who died. The nationality of the migrants was not immediately clear.

Prime Minister Jean Castex will hold a crisis meeting early on Thursday, his office said.

- France-Britain tensions -

French officials said earlier three helicopters and three boats had searched the area, uncovering corpses and people unconscious in the water, after a fisherman sounded the alarm.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin called for 'a very tough coordinated international response'

The victims were among around 50 people aboard a vessel that had set out from Dunkirk east of Calais, according to the police.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea”, following a crisis meeting with senior officials.

But underlining the tensions between London and Paris, he also said Britain had faced “difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that the situation deserves”.

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

The issue has added to growing post-Brexit strains between Britain and France, with a row on fishing rights also still unresolved.

“The response must obviously also come from Britain,” responded Darmanin, calling for “a very tough coordinated international response”.

- Winter warning -

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

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“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.

In Britain, Johnson’s Conservative government is coming under intense pressure, including from its own supporters, to reduce the numbers crossing.

Natalie Elphicke, the Conservative MP for the British Channel port of Dover, called the sinking “an absolute tragedy” and demonstrated the need to stop the crossings at source.

“As winter is approaching the seas will get rougher, the water colder, the risk of even more lives tragically being lost greater,” she said.

Charlotte Kwantes of Utopia56, an association that works with migrants in Calais, said “more than 300” migrants had died since 1999 in the area.

“As long as safe passages are not put in place between England and France, or as long as these people cannot be regularised in France… there will be deaths at the border,” she told AFP.

According to British authorities, more than 25,000 people have now arrived illegally so far this year, already triple the figure recorded in 2020.