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'A tragedy': Dozens die in English Channel on perilous boat journey to UK

The tragedy is the worst in recent times as tensions grow between London and Paris over the numbers of people crossing
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An estimated 31,500 people have left France attempting to reach Britain since the start of the year, with 7,800 people rescued at sea (AFP)

Thirty-one people died as they tried to reach Britain on Wednesday after their inflatable dinghy sank outside France's northern port of Calais, French authorities said.

It is the deadliest single disaster in recent years on this intensively used maritime migration route between France and England.

French patrol vessels found corpses and people unconscious in the waters of the English Channel, after a fishing vessel sounded the alarm, France's interior ministry said. 

Gerald Darmanin, France's interior minister, said 34 people had been aboard, 31 of whom had died, while two were rescued and one remained missing.

Three helicopters and three boats were deployed to take part in the search, local authorities said.

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"The disaster in the Channel is a tragedy," Prime Minister Jean Castex tweeted.

"My thoughts are with the many missing and injured, victims of criminal smugglers who exploit their distress and misery."

French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to find out who was responsible for the tragedy as prosecutors opened a manslaughter probe.

"It is Europe's deepest values - humanism, respect for the dignity of each person - that are in mourning," Macron said, adding that he would not allow the Channel to become a "cemetery".

The French leader also called for an emergency meeting of "European ministers faced with the migration challenge", with Darmanin urging a "tough international response".

The disaster, the worst single loss of life recorded in recent times from migrant crossings in the English Channel, comes as tensions grow between London and Paris over the numbers of people crossing.

Rise in migrant crossings

According to the French authorities, 31,500 people have attempted the crossing to Britain since the start of the year, with 7,800 people rescued at sea. The rate of crossings has doubled since August.

The UK Home Office has said that more than 25,000 people have arrived illegally so far this year, already triple the figure recorded in 2020.

Seven people have been confirmed dead or are still missing, feared drowned, after a series of tragedies this year. 

The British government has agreed to pay France 62.7m euros ($70.2m) to increase security on its northern coast, but urged tougher action to stop migrants making the voyage.

French police said this week they had detained 15 suspected members of an international migrant smuggling syndicate that had helped at least 250 people cross to the UK every month.

Meanwhile, the current version of a new nationality and borders bill in the UK would criminalise anyone arriving in the country by an illegal route. It also criminalises anyone who seeks to save their lives at sea.

It would give immunity to Border Force staff if people die in the English Channel during operations to push migrant boats out of British waters.