British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak expressed sorrow on Wednesday after four people died following an incident involving a small migrant boat in the English Channel between Britain and France.
“I’m sure the whole House will share my sorrow at the capsizing of a small boat in the Channel in the early hours of this morning and the tragic loss of human life,” Sunak told Parliament.
“Our hearts go out to all those affected and our tributes to those involved in the extensive rescue operation.”
A small boat carrying around 40 migrants sunk off the southeastern coast of England in freezing temperatures, the BBC reported earlier in the day.
Britain’s government and emergency officials confirmed that an incident was ongoing, with lifeboats, helicopters and rescue teams working with the French and British navies to respond to an event that occurred at around 3:40 a.m.
“We are aware of an incident in U.K. waters and all relevant agencies are supporting a co-ordinated response,” a government spokesperson said. The government later confirmed four had died.
British radio station LBC reported that 43 people had been rescued.
The number of people arriving in England across the Channel has more than doubled in the last two years, and the incident comes just over a year after 27 people died while attempting to cross the sea in an inflatable dinghy in November 2021, in the worst recorded accident of its kind in the Channel.
Temperatures have plunged across Britain in the last week, bringing snow to parts of the country. The temperature was logged at 2 C in a nearby town on Wednesday morning.
Despite the freezing temperatures, more than 500 migrants have made the perilous journey in small boats since the weekend alone, with traffickers who organize the crossings taking advantage of low winds and calm seas.
Britain’s home secretary reacts:
I am aware of a distressing incident in the Channel this morning and I am being kept constantly updated while agencies respond and urgently establish the full facts. My heartfelt thoughts are with all those involved.
They have followed the more than 40,000 who have arrived from France this year, many having made the journey from Afghanistan or Iran to travel across Europe and on to Britain.
Ambulances and emergency crews gathered on the quayside at the port of Dover to handle Wednesday’s sinking. Sky News said some people had been transferred to a hospital in Ashford, Kent, but it was not known if they were survivors or fatalities.
Tougher measures proposed by Conservatives
Britain’s government has been under growing pressure to tackle the number of people arriving in small boats, after officials and charities condemned the state of migrant centres and the length of time it was taking to process arrivals.
The new incident occurred a day after the British prime minister announced plans to toughen the laws to stop the small boats crossing the Channel, including legislation to prevent migrants from remaining in the country.
Data compiled by the Missing Migrants Project showed 205 migrants had been recorded dead or missing in the English Channel since 2014.
Sunak said that Britain’s “generosity” was being abused by people arriving illegally.
In the last year there has also been a significant increase in the number of Albanians crossing the sea. Sunak announced a new five-point strategy for dealing with illegal immigration, including plans to fast-track the return of Albanian asylum seekers.
Britain’s government earlier this year announced plans to deport migrants to Rwanda alongside other efforts, hoping it would act as a deterrent to those arriving in small boats.
The policy was the subject of a legal challenge in London’s High Court in early September when a coalition of human rights groups and a trade union argued the Rwanda policy was unworkable and unethical. A decision is expected on Monday.
Sunak said the government would be restarting flights to Rwanda and announced Parliament would be asked to set quotas for how many can be admitted for humanitarian reasons.
Critics argue that while official routes exist for people to arrive in Britain from Ukraine and Hong Kong, there are no easy ways for people to apply to come to Britain from countries such as Afghanistan and Syria.