A boat carrying immigrants trying to reach the UK sank in the English Channel, near the city of Calais, the French government said.
At least 31 people died in the wreck, according to French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex called the case a “tragedy” and said the dead were victims of “criminal smugglers”.
French and British authorities carry out search operations in the English Channel area by sea and also with aircraft.
A fishing boat issued an alert early on Wednesday (24/11) after sighting several people at sea off the French coast.
“My thoughts are with the many missing and wounded victims of criminal smugglers who make use of their suffering and misery,” said the French prime minister.
Franck Dhersin, vice president for mobility, transport infrastructure and ports for the Altos de France region and mayor of Téteghem, said 24 bodies had been retrieved from the sea near Dunkirk, but said survivors had also been rescued.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Twitter that many people died, but did not specify a number.
Natalie Elphicke, British Member of Parliament for the Dover and Deal region, said the event was an “absolute tragedy” that reinforces the idea of preventing boats from entering the water.
“As winter approaches, the seas will become rougher, the water colder, and the risk of tragically losing even more lives will be greater,” said the conservative lawmaker. “That’s why stopping this dangerous crossing is humanitarian and the right thing to do.”
Several people may have arrived on the British coast in small boats on Wednesday. They were seen being taken ashore by immigration authorities.
Lewis Goodall, of BBC Newsnight, said he received information that 25 boats had attempted to make the crossing so far on Wednesday.
The French Coast Guard has issued an emergency alert to 15 people sighted at sea, the correspondent says.
He adds that a humanitarian aid agency warns of the risk of the English Channel becoming a “cemetery”.
Record numbers of attempted crossings between France and the UK are being reported. Until Monday (11/22), the number of immigrants who arrived in British territory by boat in 2021 was already triple the total of last year.
This month, more than 1,000 immigrants arrived in just one day – a new record.
The Straits of Dover is the busiest waterway in the world, where several people have died trying to make the crossing in inflatable boats. The estimate is that there were 10 deaths in recent weeks while making the route.
Earlier this week, British Interior Minister Priti Patel described the number of illegal immigrants departing France as “unacceptable”.
She said the government’s nationalities and borders bill is a “long-term solution” to address the issue “ahead of a series of operational and diplomatic work.”
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