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At least 31 people drown after migrant boat sinks in Channel.

“France will not allow the Channel to become a cemetery,” President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday night after at least 31 migrants drowned off the French coast, including five women and a small girl. One person remained missing.

The nationality of the migrants was not yet known.

The alarm was raised by a fisherman who saw 15 bodies floating in the Channel at about 2pm on Wednesday. A British patrol ship and British and Belgian helicopters joined the French rescue mission. Two survivors are in critical condition in hospital.

The French interior minister Gérard Darmanin said four persons suspected of involvement in the fatal attempted crossing had been arrested.

Mr Macron promised that “everything will be done to find and convict the traffickers who exploit misery and distress”.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said he was “shocked and appalled and deeply saddened by the loss of life at sea in the Channel”. The tragedy “underscores how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way . . . It also shows how vital it is that we now step up our efforts to break the business model of the gangsters who are sending people to sea,” he added after chairing an emergency committee meeting on the tragedy.

The International Organisation for Migration said it was the biggest single loss of life in the Channel in at least seven years.

The number of small vessels attempting to cross the Channel has doubled over the past three months, Philippe Dutrieux, the head of the regional maritime authority, said last week.

The Dover straits are the world’s busiest shipping lane. Dozens of boats reportedly set out to cross them on Wednesday because the weather was clear and calm.

The migrants who perished were in an inflatable dinghy. When they are overloaded, the soft hulls of the dinghies tend to take on water and fold.

The British wire agency PA said more than 25,700 migrants have succeeded in crossing the Channel this year, three times more than the entire year of 2020. Mr Dutrieux said that 31,500 migrants had set sail from the French side this year. About 7,800 have been saved by the French, and seven drowned prior to Wednesday.

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