At least 27 refugees and asylum seekers have died trying to cross the English Channel after their dinghy deflated and sank in the worst disaster on record involving migrants in the sea separating France and the United Kingdom.
France had earlier said 31 people lost their lives, but the number was later revised down to 27, government officials said.
More people had left France’s northern shores than usual on Wednesday to take advantage of the relatively calm sea conditions, although the water was bitterly cold, according to the Reuters news agency, which cited local fishers.
One called the rescue services after seeing an empty dinghy and people floating motionless nearby, and a joint French-British rescue operation was launched involving at least three boats and three helicopters.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said French police had arrested four people suspected of being linked to the drowning, which he called “the biggest [migrant] tragedy that we have seen”. Two people were critically ill in hospital with severe hypothermia, he added, but the nationalities and identities of those on board were not known.
The London-based Times newspaper said one of the dead was an Afghan soldier who had worked with the British armed forces and whose family decided to risk the crossing because they had “waited so long for help” from the UK.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) called the incident the largest single loss of life in the Channel since it started collecting data in 2014.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex called the boat sinking a “tragedy”.
“My thoughts are with the many missing and injured, victims of criminal smugglers who exploit their distress and misery,” he wrote in a tweet.
The number of people using small boats or dinghies to cross the Channel has risen sharply this year despite the dangers, and the issue has become an increasing point of friction between London and Paris.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked and appalled” by the deaths and called on France to do more to deter people from attempting the crossing. People trafficking gangs were “literally getting away with murder”, Johnson said.
French President Emmanuel Macron said London needed to stop politicising the issue for domestic gain, while Darmanin said the UK had to be a part of the answer.
Human traffickers typically overload the dinghies with passengers, leaving the boats barely afloat and at the mercy of waves.
But rights groups and refugee experts say government policies restricting asylum and tighter surveillance was pushing people to take ever more risks.
“To accuse only the smugglers is to hide the responsibility of the French and British authorities,” said l’Auberge des Migrants, an advocacy group that supports refugees and displaced people.
The UK, where regaining “control” of Britain’s borders was the rallying cry for the ‘No’ campaign in the divisive 2016 referendum on whether the country should remain a member of the European Union, has urged France to take stricter action against those attempting to make the journey.
According to the French authorities, 31,500 people have attempted the crossing since the start of the year, and 7,800 people have been rescued at sea, figures which have doubled since August.
Macron has said the EU’s border agency Frontex should get more financial means to protect the bloc’s external borders and prevent migrants from gathering on France’s northern coast.
“France will not let the Channel become a graveyard,” Macron said.
Later on Wednesday, the UK prime minister’s office said Johnson held a phone call with Macron, and the two leaders promised to stop “lethal crossings”.
“They agreed on the urgency of stepping up joint efforts to prevent these deadly crossings and to do everything possible to stop the gangs responsible for putting people’s lives at risk,” it said in a statement.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Paris, journalist and academic Peter Humi said one of the reasons driving the large number of crossings into different parts of Europe included the “conclusion of certain wars in the Middle East and as far as Afghanistan”.
“Uncertainty continues to plague that region … It is a combination of the political situation in the Middle East and in countries such as Afghanistan and the continuing economic problems,” he added.
According to UK officials, more than 25,000 people have arrived so far this year; already triple the figure recorded in 2020.
Earlier this year, Home Secretary Priti Patel told Darmanin that stopping people making their way from France on small boats was her “number one priority”.
The French interior minister has said the UK must honour both maritime law and commitments made to his country, which include financial payments to help fund French maritime border patrols.
Before Wednesday’s disaster, 14 people had drowned this year trying to make it to the UK, a local maritime prefecture official said. In 2020, a total of seven people died and two disappeared. In 2019, four people lost their lives.