France and the UK vowed to step up cooperation to stop illegal crossings after at least 27 migrants died off the coast of Calais on Wednesday in the largest tragedy of its kind in the Channel.
The regional maritime authority, which oversees rescue operations, said 27 bodies were found, two people survived and four others were missing and presumed drowned.
The accident marks the biggest loss of life during attempted illegal crossings of the Channel, according to IOM. It comes as record numbers of migrants have attempted to cross from France to the United Kingdom this year.
Fishermen initially reported discovering 15 bodies floating in the water at around 14h CET. A French navy vessel recovered five dead bodies and five other people unconscious.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 34 people were believed to have been on the boat.
Speaking on Wednesday, he said authorities found 31 bodies — including those of five women and a young girl — but the discrepancy in the numbers was not immediately explained.
Earlier on Wednesday, Darmanin said on Twitter that he was on his way to the scene, as well as to visit the survivors at the Calais hospital.
“Strong emotion in front of the tragedy of the numerous deaths due to the capsizing of a boat of migrants in the English Channel,” Darmanin wrote.
“The criminal nature of the smugglers who organise these crossings cannot be overstated,” he added.
At the press conference in Calais, Darmanin said four suspected traffickers were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of being linked to the deadly sinking of the dinghy.
Two have already appeared in court by the end of the day, he stated.
British, French leaders call emergency meetings
The Dunkirk public prosecutor’s office told AFP that an investigation had been opened for “aiding illegal entry and residence in an organised gang” and “aggravated manslaughter”.
Speaking to reporters gathered in front of 10 Downing Street, British prime minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked and appalled and deeply saddened” by the tragedy.
“My thoughts and sympathies are first of all with the victims and their families. It’s an appalling thing that they have suffered.”
He also stated that he wanted to “do more” with France to discourage illegal crossings.
Johnson was holding a meeting of the government’s crisis committee, COBRA, in response to the channel tragedy, his office said.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday evening that “France will not allow [the Channel] to become a cemetery,” calling for “immediate reinforcements” to Frontex and an emergency European meeting.
Macron told Johnson he expects full cooperation from the British and that they do not use the tragic situation “for political purposes,” the Elysee said.
PM Jean Castex has called for a meeting with eight of his ministers for Thursday morning.
A joint French-British operation to search for survivors was still underway Wednesday evening.
So far this year, at least three migrants have drowned off the coast of Calais, while four people remain missing.
The narrow strait of water can be dangerous for attempted migrant crossings, due to strong sea currents.
An estimated 22,000 people have reached the UK in small boats this year, more than double the number in 2020.
The British government has agreed to pay France €62.7 million to increase security on its northern coast, but says the situation remains “unacceptable”.
Earlier this month, a record of 1,185 people reached the UK in a single day.