Five people have died after a boat carrying migrants got into trouble attempting to launch from a beach south of Calais, according to reports in France.
The incident happened near Wimereux in the early hours of Sunday morning. The French newspaper La Voix du Nord said 72 people, including 10 children, were rescued and taken to Calais, while one person was taken to hospital in Boulogne.
The newspaper said the migrants got into difficulty while trying to board the boat in darkness and cold temperatures. It was initially reported that four people had died, before this afternoon a fifth was confirmed.
A Navy helicopter, police and 50 firefighters were involved in the rescue operation.
The Home Office has yet to comment, but speaking on the BBC on Sunday morning, foreign secretary Lord David Cameron said the deaths were a tragedy, but the incident highlighted how the UK “needed to stop the boats”.
The UK Coastguard could not comment because the incident took place in French territorial waters.
The country had seen zero arrivals in 26 days, which was the longest period of no small boat crossings since 2020.
But, as the poor weather eased, around 50 people were reportedly brought ashore from the Channel by the UK Border Force.
The first crossings of 2024 come as the row over the government’s troubled Rwanda plan continues to cause schisms in the Conservative party.
Lord Cameron said the deaths of four people crossing the English channel from France is “heartbreaking”.
The foreign secretary said the “appalling” deaths in the bitter cold channel in the middle of the night “breaks my heart”.
And he said the tragedy shows “why we have got to stop the boats” crossing in the first place.
He said that in an ideal world migrants would be immediately returned to France, which would “collapse the whole trade”.
“That is not available, and that is why we are pursuing the [deportation] policy with Rwanda,” Lord Cameron said.
Sir Keir Starmer said the deaths were a “tragic loss of life” and his thoughts were with “family members and friends grieving the awful way these four individuals lost their lives”.
“In a sense we don’t need to know the details, to lose your life in a small dinghy or boat in the winter in the Channel is just awful,” the Labour leader said.
But he disagreed with Lord Cameron’s suggestion that the deaths show the need to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.
“The starting place for that is to go after the criminal gangs that are running this vile trade,” Sir Keir said.
“That’s where I put my political muscle if you like, rather than a gimmick, which is the Rwanda scheme,” he added.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “Awful that more lives have been lost in cold waters of the Channel.
“More families grieving while dangerous criminal smuggler gangs are making huge profits from these perilous boat crossings whenever the weather calms – they need to be stopped before more lives are lost.”
Charity the Refugee Council said it was “deeply saddened by the terrible loss of life in the Channel” and the tragedy should be a “wake-up call”.
Chief executive Enver Solomon said: “The sad reality is that this is not the first time we are waking up to such devastating news. With no meaningful commitment from the government to expand safe routes for refugees, it’s only a matter of time before tragedy strikes again.
“Rather than pushing ahead with unlawful and costly policies such as the Rwanda plan, the Government must put in place safe routes and seek to treat refugees and people seeking asylum with compassion and fairness in line with our country’s values.”
Mr Sunak is braced for a Commons showdown over the plan after being warned by Tory MPs that the proposal will not work unless it is significantly beefed up.
As the right wing of the party gears up for a parliamentary battle, the prime minister was warned by former immigration minister Robert Jenrick that the plan “simply doesn’t work” in its current form.
Dozens of right-wing Conservatives are backing amendments to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill aimed at effectively ignoring international law and severely limiting individual migrants’ ability to resist being put on a flight to Kigali.
Mr Jenrick refused to say whether he would vote for the legislation if it is not rewritten.
“This is the third piece of legislation in three years. It’s three strikes or you’re out, we’ve got to get this right,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today earlier this week.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “We can confirm there has been an incident in the Channel involving a small boat in French waters. Our thoughts are with all those involved.
“French authorities are leading the response and investigation. We will not be commenting further at this stage.”