At least 27 refugees and migrants have died seeking to cross the English Channel from France to England when their dinghy sank off the northern coast of Calais, French police and a local official have said.
Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart told BFM television on Wednesday that the death toll stood at 27, minutes after another mayor put the tally at 24. French police said at least 27 people had died.
The United Nations agency International Organization for Migration called the incident the largest single loss of life in the Channel since they started collecting data in 2014.
According to fishermen, more refugees and migrants left France’s northern shores than usual to take advantage of calm sea conditions on Wednesday, although the water was bitterly cold. One fisherman called the rescue services after seeing an empty dinghy and people floating motionless nearby.
Three boats and three helicopters have been deployed to take part in the search, local authorities said.
“Strong emotions in response to the tragedy that left several dead due to the capsizing of a migrant boat in the English channel,” Interior minister Gerald Darmanin said in a tweet.
“We can’t say enough about the criminal nature of the smugglers who organise these crossings. I’m going to the scene.”
France Prime Minister Jean Castex called the boat capsizing a “tragedy”.
“My thoughts are with the many missing and injured, victims of criminal smugglers who exploit their distress and misery,” he tweeted.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “was shocked and appalled and deeply sad by the loss of life”, after he had chaired a meeting of the government’s emergency committee on the crossings.
“My thoughts and sympathies are the victims and their families and it is in an appalling thing that they have suffered. But this disaster underscores how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way,” he added.
Johnson asserted his government would “leave no stone unturned to demolish the business proposition of the human traffickers and the gangsters”.
“We have to work with our French friends, with our European partners across the Channel. I say to our partners now is the time for us all to step up, to work together, to do everything we can to break these gangs who are literally getting away with murder.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the French interior ministry said French patrol vessels found five bodies and five others unconscious in the water after a fisherman alerted authorities.
The incident comes as tensions grow between London and Paris over the record numbers of people crossing the Channel.
The number of people using small boats or dinghies to cross the Channel has grown sharply this year, despite the high risks. Britain has urged France to take stricter actions against those attempting to take the journey.
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.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Paris, journalist and academic Peter Humi said one the reasons driving the large number of crossings into different parts of Europe include 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.
The ruling UK Conservative Party of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is coming under increasing pressure, including from its own supporters, to reduce the number of people crossing the Channel.
According to UK officials, more than 25,000 people have now 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.