AT least 31 migrants have drowned in the Channel in the deadliest incident since the crisis began after an inflatable dinghy flipped over.
A massive rescue operation is currently underway in French waters after the boat sank off the northern port of Calais, with at least three helicopters and three boats deployed to take part in the search.
Franck Dhersin, the mayor of Teteghem on the northern French coast, told Reuters the death toll had now reached 31 and two people were still missing.
The French interior ministry said patrol vessels found corpses and people unconscious in the water after a fisherman sounded the alarm about the incident.
Following the sinking – the deadliest single disaster on the intensively-used route – Dunkirk prosecutors opened a criminal investigation for “manslaughter” and “assistance with illegal immigration in an organised gang”.
It follows claims that people smugglers had organised the passage of the overcrowded boat, charging thousands to those on board to get to Britain.
A spokesman for Dunkirk prosecutors confirmed the opening of the investigation, saying preliminary reports were already being compiled.
Boris Johnson said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened” by the loss of life in the Channel.
The PM said the deaths “underscored how dangerous it is” to cross from France.
Speaking to reporters at Downing Street, he said: “I just want to say that I’m shocked and appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea in the Channel.
“I think the details are still coming in but more than 20 people have lost their lives.
“My thoughts and sympathies are first of all with the victims and their families. It’s an appalling thing that they have suffered.
“But I also want to say that this disaster underscores how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way.”
Mr Johnson was due to host an emergency meeting of the COBRA ministerial group to assess the ongoing migrant crisis.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said as he was heading to the scene: “Strong emotion in the face of the tragedy of numerous deaths due to the capsizing of a migrant boat in the English Channel.”
He said “the criminal nature of the smugglers who organise these crossings cannot be condemned enough”.
According to the French government, the boat flipped over shortly after 2pm.
Earlier today, French politician Franck Dhersin tweeted: “Already 24 corpses recovered off Dunkirk but fortunately also survivors.”
And a spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Paris said: “Around 2pm on Wednesday, a fisherman reported the discovery of about fifteen bodies floating off Calais.
“A French Navy vessel recovered several bodies, including five dead people and five unconscious, according to an early report.”
DISASTER IN THE CHANNEL
French prime minister Jean Castex said the shipwreck was a “tragedy”.
“The disaster in the Channel is a tragedy,” he said.
“My thoughts are with the many missing and injured, victims of criminal smugglers who exploit their distress and misery.”
The number of migrants who have reached the UK by boat this year is now more than three times the total for the whole of last year.
Pierre-Henri Dumont, the French MP for Calais, said the Channel risks becoming the new Mediterranean Sea for migrant crossings unless the UK and France work together to find a solution.
He told Sky News: “We all need, both sides of the Channel, to stop making migrants an internal argument with internal policies and try to figure out how to find a solution.
“The Channel right now is becoming the new Mediterranean Sea, it’s like an open sky graveyard. We must find a way to end it.”
Several records have been broken in recent weeks as more continue to make the dangerous journey to Britain.
The current record is 1,185 landing in Britain in a single day, as Priti Patel faces mounting pressure to get a grip on the crisis.
Earlier this week, the Home Secretary said an offer of Border Force guards and cops to beef up Channel patrols has been snubbed.
She made the dig during a stormy grilling in the Commons over the small boats crisis that’s infuriating Tory MPs.
Last week it was revealed only five asylum seekers out of 24,000 who’ve made the treacherous crossing this year have been returned.
Dover MP Natalie Elphicke said the crisis has “gone on for too long”.
“We need to stop further loss of life this winter,” she said.
“Today’s tragic events are a wake-up call.
It comes after around 40 migrants were pictured launching dinghies into the English Channel this morning in a fresh attempt to reach Britain.
The migrants, including at least five children, were spotted going into the water from a beach near Wimereux, just a few miles north of Boulogne-sur-Mer, in the early hours of the morning.
Multiple boats of people were also seen landing on Dungeness, Kent this afternoon.
Some 25,000 migrants have crossed the Channel this year – far eclipsing the roughly 8,000 who came in 2020 and 1,000 who arrived in 2019.
More than 4,000 have made the journey in November so-far, the most ever in a single month, and the surge shows no sign of slowing down.
French officials revealed details for the first time of how they have spent £9million from the British taxpayer, agreed as part of a £54million deal in the summer.
A spokesman for the interior ministry said: “More than 100 mobile vehicles are being delivered on the ground for patrols and arrests, with equipment adapted to the specific nature of the terrain.”
Specialist kit would include quad bikes, 4x4s, rigid-hulled boats and “vehicles equipped with sophisticated monitoring and detection equipment.”