Franck Dhersin, mayor of Téteghem and vice president of transport for the northern France region, told Reuters the death toll had risen to 31 on Wednesday evening after a boat carrying migrants across the Channel capsized.
In an earlier tweet, Dhersin had said that the boat was believed to have had more than 50 migrants on board.
“Lots of corpses in the water,” he wrote, calling the incident “a new tragedy.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea.”
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“My thoughts are with the victims and their families,” he said, as he called for countries to work together to stop smugglers from facilitating Channel crossings.
“Now is the time for us all to step up, work together and do everything we can to stop these gangs who are getting away with murder,” he said.
One fisherman, Nicolas Margolle, told Reuters he had seen at least two small dinghies earlier on Wednesday.
He said one of the boats appeared to have people on board, but the other appeared to be empty.
Margolle said another fisherman called rescue operators after spotting the empty dinghy and seeing several people floating in the water nearby.
He said there appeared to be more dinghies in the water on Wednesday because the weather was good. “But it’s cold,” he said.
The incident comes amid heightened tensions over small boat crossings on the Channel, with both French and British officials ramping up efforts to block asylum seekers from making the journey.
Despite efforts on both sides, the daily number of people crossing the Channel via small boats reached record-breaking numbers this month, with 1,185 people arriving in the U.K. on Nov. 11 alone, according to Sky News.
The number reportedly surpassed the previous record of 853 people, which was reached earlier in the month. A spokesperson for the Home Office told NBC News they could not provide commentary on the reported numbers of crossings.
Rise in deaths at sea
Wednesday’s tragedy also comes after the United Nations’ migration agency warned in a July report that the number of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees who have died while attempting to reach Europe by sea had more than doubled in the first half of 2021.
In the first six months of the year, at least 1,146 people died while risking the journey to European shores, according to the International Organization for Migration’s report.
In recent months, Britain’s Home Office has ramped up efforts to crack down on irregular migration, with Home Secretary Priti Patel introducing a bill in July aimed at deterring migrants from crossing the Channel to reach the U.K.
Dubbed the Nationality and Borders Bill, the British government has said the measure aims to “better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum,” to “deter illegal entry into the U.K.” and make it easier to remove “those with no right to be here.”
Immigration advocates and politicians have condemned the bill, however, with many calling on the U.K. to focus on creating safe routes for asylum seekers and migrants to reach Britain instead.
“Human beings will continue to drown in the Channel while the Government pursues a dangerous and reckless refugee policy that prioritizes tough borders and punishment instead of protection,” Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of immigration advocacy group Refugee Action, said in a statement.
In a statement published on Twitter on Wednesday, British MP Zarah Sultana said she was “heartbroken” by the news of the deaths on the Channel.
“Please let this be the moment we provide safe routes to welcome refugees to Britain, instead of endlessly whipping up hate and fear,” Sultana, a member of the opposition Labour Party wrote.
In a statement, Patel said her thoughts were “with the families of all those who have tragically lost their lives in French waters today.”
In the wake of the tragedy, she said Britain would instead “continue to intensify” its efforts to “prevent migrants embarking on these deadly journeys.”
The deadly incident, she said, “serves as the starkest possible reminder of the dangers of these Channel crossings organized by ruthless criminal gangs.”
“It is why this Government’s New Plan for Immigration will overhaul our broken asylum system and address many of the long-standing pull factors encouraging migrants to make the perilous journey from France to the United Kingdom,” Patel said.
France’s coast guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment.