Dozens of people have died after their boat sunk in the English Channel while trying to reach the UK today.
They are believed to have been migrants trying to make the crossing from Calais in a dinghy, with the 31 victims including five women and a little girl.
Boris Johnson will chair a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee in response to the situation, Downing Street said.
The prime minister said he was ‘shocked, appalled and deeply saddened’.
It is believed to be the deadliest accident involving migrants trying to reach Britain in this way.
French interior minister Gerald Darmanin told a news conference in Calais that the boat which sank had been ‘very frail’, likening it to ‘a pool you blow up in your garden’.
He said 34 people were believed to be on the boat. Authorities found 31 bodies and two survivors while one person was missing.
I am shocked, appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea in the Channel.
My thoughts are with the victims and their families.
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. pic.twitter.com/D1LWeoIFIu
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) November 24, 2021
Mr Darmanin said four suspected migrant traffickers had been arrested over the incident.
He earlier expressed his ‘strong emotion at the drama of the many deaths due to the capsizing of a migrant boat in the Channel. We can never say enough about the criminal nature of the smugglers who organise these crossings.’
A fisherman raised the alarm after seeing bodies in the water around 2pm, with a rescue operation then getting underway to recover the bodies and any survivors, including some found unconscious.
Dover MP Natalie Elphicke said: ‘This is an absolute tragedy. It underlines why saving lives at sea starts by stopping the boats entering the water in the first place.
Forte émotion devant le drame des nombreux morts dû au chavirage d’un bateau de migrants dans la Manche.
On ne dira jamais assez le caractère criminel des passeurs qui organisent ces traversées. Je me rends sur place.
— Gérald DARMANIN (@GDarmanin) November 24, 2021
‘As winter is approaching the seas will get rougher, the water colder, the risk of even more lives tragically being lost greater.
‘That’s why stopping these dangerous crossings is the humanitarian and right thing to do.’
London mayor Sadiq Khan said: ‘This is an utter tragedy. No one should have to risk their life in this way.
‘Those seeking sanctuary need safe routes – the Government must work with the French authorities to provide them.’
A police source said: ‘A search and rescue operation is under way off the coast of Calais.
‘We think several people have died as their vessel sank.’
The French navy responded to the scene as well as the coastguard and a search helicopter, with the operation still ongoing.
French prime minister Jean Castex said the shipwreck was a ‘tragedy’.
‘My thoughts are with the many missing and injured, victims of criminal smugglers who exploit their distress and injury,’ he said.
Pierre-Henri Dumont, the French MP for Calais, 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.’
Home Secretary Priti Patel said that her proposed Nationality and Borders Bill would prevent people attempting the crossing.
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.
— Priti Patel (@pritipatel) November 24, 2021
She said her thoughts were with the families of those who lost their lives today, adding: ‘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.
‘We will continue to intensify all cooperation with France and other European partners to prevent migrants embarking on these deadly journeys.’
Mike Adamson, Chief Executive at British Red Cross, said: ‘Reports of more lives lost today in the English Channel are truly heart-breaking and come far too soon after other recent deaths on this route. Our thoughts are with their loved ones, who may not even know yet what has happened.
‘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.
‘There are no simple answers, but we urge the Government to rethink its plans for making the UK’s asylum system harder to access. This should start with ambitious plans for new safe routes and a commitment to resettle 10,000 people a year.’