At least four people, including two young children, died when a boat carrying at least 19 migrants capsized off France while trying to cross the English Channel to Britain, French authorities said on Tuesday, reports The Associated Press.
Fifteen migrants have been saved so far and rescue and search operations were still under way, according to the regional administration for the Nord region. It said in a statement that the dead were a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old, an adult woman and an adult man, and stressed that the toll so far is provisional pending further searches in the area.
Aid groups decried the deaths and called for more government help for struggling migrants, while British and French authorities expressed their condolences.
Such crossings have become increasingly common in recent years, despite political uproar in Britain and stepped-up police efforts to stop them, but deaths are rare. French authorities reported four migrant deaths in total in small boats crossing the Channel in 2019.
On Tuesday, a sailboat alerted authorities to a migrant boat in distress off the coast of Dunkirk, and France mobilized five vessels and a Belgian helicopter nearby to help with the rescue, according to the regional French maritime agency. It had said earlier that 18 people were rescued and were receiving treatment in hospitals in Calais and Dunkirk. The reason for the different numbers of rescued migrants was not explained.
The Dunkirk prosecutor launched an investigation into the cause of the sinking, which occurred on a day when both British and French weather authorities had warned of gusty winds in the area.
Despite joint police efforts on both sides of the Channel, migrants have long used northern France as a launching point to sneak into Britain, and the issue has long strained relations between the neighbors.
Britain’s Press Association news agency calculates that more than 7,400 migrants have crossed the Channel to the UK by boat so far this year, up from about 1,800 in all of 2019. French maritime officials have rescued hundreds more in routine operations in the Channel, known for high winds, strong currents and heavy maritime traffic.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his “thoughts are with the loved ones of those who tragically lost their lives in the Channel today.”
“We have offered the French authorities every support as they investigate this terrible incident and will do all we can to crack down on the ruthless criminal gangs who prey on vulnerable people by facilitating these dangerous journeys,” he said.