Thirty-one migrants die trying to cross the Channel to Britain


A life jacket is left after a group of migrants boarded an inflatable boat, to leave the coasts of northern France and cross the English Channel, near Wimereux, France, on November 24, 2021. REUTERS / Gonzalo Fuentes

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PARIS, November 24 (Reuters) – Thirty-one people, including five women and a little girl, died on Wednesday after their rubber dinghy capsized while crossing the Channel between France and Great Britain during the worst disaster ever involving migrants in the waters between countries.

The English Channel is one of the busiest seaways in the world and the currents are strong. Overloaded dinghies often barely stay afloat and are at the mercy of the waves as they attempt to reach British shores.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 34 people were on board, of whom 31 have died, two have been rescued and one is still missing.

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“There are two survivors (…) but their lives are in danger, they are suffering from severe hypothermia,” he said.

The nationalities and identities of the migrants were not known, Darmanin said, adding that four human traffickers suspected of being involved in the crash had been arrested.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that the European Union’s border agency Frontex should have more financial means to protect the EU’s external borders and prevent the arrival of more migrants on the northern coasts of France .

He also called for an emergency meeting of EU ministers to discuss the issue.

“France will not let the English Channel become a cemetery,” Macron said.

More migrants than usual left the French Channel coast on Wednesday to take advantage of calm sea conditions, according to fishermen, although the water is very cold.

A fisherman, Nicolas Margolle, told Reuters he saw two small rubber dinghies earlier on Wednesday, one with people on board and the other empty.

He said another fisherman called for emergency services after seeing an empty dinghy and 15 people floating motionless nearby, unconscious or dead.

Darmanin said the migrants’ dinghy deflated and when rescuers arrived it was “deflated like an inflatable garden pool”.

While French police prevented more crossings than in previous years, they only partially stemmed the flow of migrants wishing to reach Britain – one of the many sources of tension between Paris and London.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked and appalled” by the deaths.

“My thoughts and sympathy are with the victims and their families (…) but this disaster underlines how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way,” he said after chairing a meeting of Cabinet emergency.

Although both governments blamed the smugglers, a number of French politicians, including the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, blamed Britain for the problem, saying it should change its immigration policies.

Some rights groups have said tighter oversight pushes migrants to take more risks as they seek a better life in the West.

“To accuse only the smugglers is to hide the responsibility of the French and British authorities,” said Auberge des Migrants, an advocacy group that supports refugees and displaced people.

Ahead of Wednesday’s disaster, 14 people had drowned this year trying to get to Britain, an official with the local maritime prefecture said. In 2020, a total of seven people died and two were missing, while in 2019, four died.

Early Wednesday, Reuters reporters in France saw a group of more than 40 migrants heading for Britain in a dinghy. Members of the same group were later sighted by Reuters reporters arriving on the UK coast. Read more

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Reporting by Geert De Clercq, Tassilo Hummel, Ingrid Melander, Pascal Rossignol, Andrew MasAskill, Paul Sandle; Written by Ingrid Melander; edited by Richard Lough, Mike Collett-White and Leslie Adler

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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