At least 27 people, reportedly including 17 men, seven women, one of whom was pregnant, and three children, died while attempting to cross the English Channel on Wednesday.
The International Organization for Migration, an agency linked to the United Nations which responds to issues around forced displacement, says that it is the biggest single loss of life in the Channel since it began collecting data in 2014.
The tragic event has put renewed pressure on politicians to do more to address deadly Channel crossings and find safe routes for asylum for people fleeing conflict and persecution in their own countries. Many of the people who died are reported to be Kurdish and from Iraq and Iran.
Authorities were alerted when a fisherman saw people in the sea and coast guards launched a rescue operation, but it was too late to save most of the people on the boat, which was reported to be a dinghy that deflated. France's interior minister Gerald Darmanin told French radio that there were two survivors recovering in hospital, the BBC reported.
France has also launched an investigation into aggravated manslaughter, and four people suspected of trafficking the people who died have been arrested, Darmanin said, according to CNN.
On Thursday, Downing Street said that the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron had spoken and agreed to step up efforts to try and stop people crossing the sea between the two countries. Johnson described the deaths as a “disaster” that “underscored how dangerous the crossing is.”
Priti Patel, the UK’s Home Secretary tweeted that the event “serves as the starkest possible reminder of the dangers of these Channel crossings organised by ruthless criminal gangs.”
The UK government has also pledged 62.7 million Euros (£54 million) to France during 2021-22 to help fund more police patrols along its coastline.
However charities have warned that simply focusing on policing the coastline and the people smugglers involved will not help.
Speaking to the Guardian, Kay Marsh who works for migrant charity Samphire in Dover said: “Unless we see this as a catalyst for proper systemic change, this will keep happening again and it will get worse. The deterrents aren’t working.”
British Red Cross chief executive Mike Adamson added that the deaths should spark a shift in policy, to provide safe routes across the Channel.
“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,” he said.
Patel has previously put forward plans to forcibly push boats back — and faces three legal challenges from charities, including Care4Calais and Channel Rescue, over the plans.
Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “Pushbacks prioritise politics over people’s lives. Refugees are innocent people who were simply unfortunate enough to be born in the wrong place. They are asking for our help. It is inhumane to punish them for this.”