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31 people are dead after a migrant boat capsized in the English channel


At least 27 migrants have died while trying to cross from France to Britain in a small boat. Thousands of people have been trying to reach the U.K. to claim asylum, despite the efforts of French and British authorities to stop them. A number of people have died in the treacherous waters of the English Channel. But this is the worst incident since the crossings began more than two years ago.

Reporter Rebecca Rosman joins us now from the French channel port of Calais. Rebecca, thanks for being here. Just tell us what we know about what has happened.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: So what we know is that around 2 p.m. yesterday, rescue workers got a call from a fisherman who said he spotted about 15 bodies floating in the water just off the coast of Calais. Rescue workers say they got to the scene within 15 minutes but that the majority of victims were already dead. Prosecutors have opened an investigation to find out, you know, exactly what happened. But they think it, of course, has something to do with the fact that the victims were traveling in a tiny inflatable boat. And the boat was completely deflated when rescue workers arrived at the scene.

Two people were saved. And this morning, authorities identified the survivors as a Somalian and an Iraqi. They were immediately hospitalized and are being treated for severe hypothermia. France's interior minister spoke outside the hospital where they are being treated last night, however, and he emphasized that their condition remains critical.

MARTIN: It's a grim story, right? And so many of us remember hearing about these stories over and over again a couple of years ago, especially when it came to refugees out of Syria. But it's important to remember this is still happening, right? Can you tell us about the people who died?

ROSMAN: We know that at least 17 victims were male. Seven were female. And this - sadly, it includes one woman who was pregnant. There were also three children among the dead. And we don't know their exact nationalities, but French media is reporting that at least a handful were from countries in the Middle East. Many migrants trying to reach the U.K. in recent months include people from countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and Eritrea.

MARTIN: Why the desperation to reach the U.K., Rebecca? I mean you've talked to a lot of migrants in your wider reporting of this story. But they were in France, right? Like, France is a stable, peaceful place with social benefits for migrants and refugees.

ROSMAN: Yeah. You know, I think - well, some of it just - first of all, it has to do with practical reasons, right? Many of these people - they already probably speak a certain amount of English. Or they maybe have family in the U.K. that they're trying to reach. I also think perhaps there's this unrealistic sort of dream that life in the U.K. is somehow better - right? - like, that there are more opportunities for them there, that it's easier to find work or get their paperwork in order. Many people have also told me they just don't feel welcome in France, not only because they don't speak the language, but also there's regular evacuations of migrant camps here in Calais. Human rights groups have accused police of harassing migrants in the area, slashing tents, restricting food or water for them. And they see the U.K. as a last resort.

I spoke with a taxi driver here who told me he completely understood why these people want to go to the U.K. He said that on a clear day you can see the English coastline from here. So it's almost tangible for them, right? Many people have been traveling by foot for months, if not years. And this, they see as their last frontier.

MARTIN: What are the two governments - in France and the U.K. - going to do to stop this from happening?

ROSMAN: So there's been this sort of uncomfortable cooperation between the U.K. and France, where the U.K. tries to get the French government to keep people in France, paying - over the summer, the U.K. government paid $73 million for France to double its number of patrols along the French coastline. And both governments are still in talks about joint patrols.

MARTIN: OK. Rebecca Rosman, who's at the French channel port of Calais - thanks for your reporting.

ROSMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTANT.LO'S "HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.