At least 31 migrants have died after the boat they were in headed for the UK capsized in the English Channel.
ranck Dhersin, the mayor of the French town of Teteghem, told the television channel France 3 that dozens of people had died, adding that a further 26 people had been rescued.
“24 dead bodies have been taken out of the water as well as 26 people who were still alive,” he was quoted as saying.
The death toll has since risen again to 31.
A French coastguard official said on Wednesday afternoon that a rescue operation was underway off the coast of Calais, after a fishing boat sounded the alarm.
Responding to the fatalities, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who is heading to the scene, said: “Strong emotion in the face of the tragedy of numerous deaths due to the capsizing of a migrant boat in the English Channel.”
Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Jean Castex said: “My thoughts are with the many missing and injured, victims of criminal smugglers who exploit their distress and injury.”
The latest deaths come after a rise in Channel crossings this year. More than 25,700 people have made the dangerous journey from France to the UK so far in 2021, more than three times higher than the total in 2020.
There was an outpouring of grief from campaigners and charities at the latest tragedy, who called for answers and urgent changes to current policies – while politicians said a solution needed to be found to tackle the migrant crisis.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “It’s truly heart-breaking to hear that the lives of so many ordinary people have been lost on a harrowing journey to Britain in search of safety.
“How many tragedies like this must we see before the (UK) 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 home 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.”
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.”
British Red Cross chief executive Mike Adamson said the news comes “far too soon after other recent deaths on this route”.
He added: “Nobody puts their life at risk unless they are absolutely desperate and feel they have no other options.
“Everyone deserves to live in safety and it should be unacceptable to us that people have no choice but to make dangerous crossings in their search for this.”
The president and chairman of the ports of Calais and Boulogne Jean-Marc Puissesseau told BBC News the UK and the EU must work together to find a solution to migrant boat crossings, adding: “Even if the sea is not looking so rough, in the middle (of the English Channel) there are always many waves. It is dangerous.
“That can happen again because they try everything to get to your country.
“That’s why I am very upset. I don’t know what to do.”
He accused people smugglers of being “murderers”, adding: “The poor migrants who have spent months and months to come to here, and who die so close to their dream…I don’t know what to do really.”