At least 31 migrants bound for Britain died Wednesday when their boat sank in the English Channel, in what France’s interior minister called the biggest tragedy involving migrants on the dangerous crossing to date.

A joint French-British operation to search for survivors was still underway late Wednesday. Four suspected traffickers were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of being linked to the sunken boat, Darmanin told reporters in the French port city of Calais. He said two of the suspects later appeared in court.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 34 people were believed to have been on the boat. Authorities found 31 bodies and two survivors, and one person appeared to still be missing. The nationalities of the travellers were not released.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson convened a meeting of the government’s crisis committee, and Darmanin rushed to see survivors in a Calais hospital. The two governments have long been at odds over how to prevent the crossings, with both sides blaming the other for not doing enough.

Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, told The Associated Press that he spoke to one of the rescuers who brought some of the bodies to the Calais port. “Traffickers are assassins,” he said. “We were waiting for something like this to happen.”

Three French patrol boats were joined by a French helicopter and a British helicopter in searching the area, according to the French maritime agency for the region.

The number of migrants using small boats to cross the channel has grown sharply this year, despite the high risks that are worsening in autumn weather.

More than 25,700 people have made the dangerous journey in small boats this year, three times the total for the whole of 2020.

French and British authorities have picked up thousands of migrants off both the French and British coasts in recent weeks in scores of rescue operations.

Darmanin insisted that France has worked hard to prevent deadly crossings, rescuing 7,800 people since January and stopping 671 who were trying to cross on Wednesday alone.

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