At least 31 people including five women and a young girl have died trying to cross the Channel to the UK in an inflatable dinghy, officials say, in what is the deadliest incident since the current crisis began.
Two survivors are in intensive care while police have arrested four people suspected of being linked to the drownings. The International Organisation for Migration said it was the biggest single loss of life in the Channel since it began collecting data in 2014.
Boris Johnson, who held a Cobra meeting on Wednesday to discuss the incident, said he was “appalled” by the tragedy. He then suggested the French government had not always approached the problem of the crossings “in a way we think the situation deserves”.
The French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, told an impromptu news conference in Calais that the boat that sank had been “very frail”, and compared it to “a pool you blow up in your garden”.
He said 34 people were believed to have been on before it sank. Authorities found 31 bodies and the two survivors while one person was missing.
It is unclear what country the victims originally came from, Darmanin added.
A rescue operation is under way in the Channel by air and sea as French and British authorities search for anyone still in the water.
Asked by broadcasters in Downing Street what was going to change after Wednesday’s tragedy, Johnson said the two governments should work closer together.
“We’ve had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves,” the prime minister said. “I understand the difficulties that all countries face, but what we want now is to do more together – and that’s the offer we are making.”
President Emmanuel Macron said that France “will not let the Channel become a cemetery” and promised to “find and condemn those responsible” for the tragedy.
Later, No 10 said the two leaders had spoken and agreed “to do everything possible to stop the gangs responsible for putting people’s lives at risk”.
In a statement, it said: “Both leaders were clear that today’s tragic loss of life was a stark reminder that it is vital to keep all options on the table to stop these lethal crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs behind them.”
Refugee charities urged the government to save lives by opening safe routes for asylum seekers to apply to come to the UK without taking to the sea.
Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “How many tragedies like this must we see before the government fundamentally changes its approach by committing to an ambitious expansion of safe routes for those men, women and children in desperate need of protection?
“Every day, people are forced to flee their homes through no fault of their own. Now is the time to end the cruel and ineffective tactic of seeking to punish or push away those who try and find safety in our country.”
An emergency search was sparked at about 2pm when a fishing boat sounded the alarm after spotting several people at sea off the coast of France.
One fisher, Nicolas Margolle, told Reuters he had seen two small dinghies earlier on Wednesday, one with people onboard and another empty.
He said another fisher had called rescue services after seeing an empty dinghy and 15 people floating motionless nearby.
He confirmed there were more dinghies trying to make the 21-mile journey on Wednesday because the weather was good. “But it’s cold,” Margolle said.
Whitehall sources told the Guardian that they had recorded 14 deaths among people crossing the Channel in small boats since August 2019 before this incident. They also claimed that seven other people had been reported missing – five of those in the last month.
The latest deaths follow others reported but unverified in the Channel in recent weeks, amid a record number of people attempting the crossing. On 11 November, a total of 1,185 people arrived in England by boat, the most in a single day.
Until now, the largest loss of life in the Channel from a single boat came in October last year when a Kurdish-Iranian family of five died after the boat they were travelling in sank. They were Rasoul Iran-Nejad, 35, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, 35, Anita, nine, Armin, six, and 15-month-old Artin, whose body washed up on the coast of Norway months later.
A number of people are also believed to have reached Britain in small boats on Wednesday, with people seen being brought ashore in Dover by immigration officials.
The Dover strait is the busiest shipping lane in the world. More than 25,700 people have made the dangerous journey to the UK in small boats this year – three times the total for the whole of 2020, according to official figures.
It was widely expected that the number of crossings would reduce in the winter. Instead, bigger boats have been used to bring people to the UK in greater numbers.
November has been the busiest month on record with more than 6,000 having reached the UK, despite colder and rougher weather and sea conditions.
Tom Davies, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights campaign manager, said the charity was “deeply saddened by the loss of these lives”, adding: “How many more times must we see people lose their life trying to reach safety in the UK because of the woeful lack of safe means to do so?
“We desperately need a new approach to asylum – including genuine Anglo-French efforts to devise safe asylum routes to avoid such tragedies happening again.”
The British government has accused France of failing to control the situation. The French interior ministry says it is honouring its commitments to prevent the departures of small boats, with more than 600 police and gendarmes stationed on the north coast 24 hours a day.
France says it has increased its success rate in stopping the crossings, with 62.5% of departures being stopped in 2021, up from about 50% last year.