At least 30 people have died trying to cross the Channel to the UK in an inflatable dinghy, French officials say, in what would be the deadliest incident since the current crisis began.
Jean-Marc Puissesseau, the president and chairman of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, told BBC News: “What I know is that there were 50 people on this boat. What I have heard is that there are 30 people who have died, and about five or six who have been found.”
The mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, earlier said the death toll stood at 27 at 5pm UK time, but other French officials had warned they expected the total to rise.
A rescue operation is under way in the Channel by air and sea as French and British authorities search for anyone still in the water.
Boris Johnson is expected to chair a Cobra committee meeting on Wednesday night to discuss the incident and the government’s response. It follows a week when the home secretary, Priti Patel, has been under pressure from her party’s MPs to curb the numbers travelling to the UK.
The French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, is travelling to Calais. He tweeted his “strong emotion” at the capsizing and said he could not emphasise strongly enough “the criminal nature of the traffickers who organise these crossings”.
An emergency search was sparked when a fishing boat sounded the alarm earlier on Wednesday after spotting several people at sea off the coast of France.
One fisher, Nicolas Margolle, told Reuters he had seen two small dinghies earlier on Wednesday, one with people onboard and another empty.
He said another fisher had called rescue services after seeing an empty dinghy and 15 people floating motionless nearby.
He confirmed there were more dinghies trying to make the 21-mile journey on Wednesday because the weather was good. “But it’s cold,” Margolle said.
Home Office sources told the Guardian on Monday that they had recorded 14 deaths among people crossing the Channel in small boats since August 2019. They also claimed that seven other people had been reported missing – five of those in the last month.
The latest deaths follow others reported but unverified in the Channel in recent weeks, amid a record number of people attempting the crossing. On 11 November, a total of 1,185 people arrived in England by boat, the most in a single day.
Until now, the largest loss of life in the Channel from a single boat came in October last year when a Kurdish-Iranian family of five died after the boat they were travelling in sank.
They were Rasoul Iran-Nejad, 35, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, 35, Anita, nine, Armin, six, and 15-month-old Artin, whose body washed up on the coast of Norway months later.
A number of people are also believed to have reached Britain in small boats on Wednesday, with people seen being brought ashore in Dover by immigration officials.
The Dover strait is the busiest shipping lane in the world and has claimed the lives of many people trying to cross to Britain in inflatable dinghies.
More than 25,700 people have made the dangerous journey to the UK in small boats this year – three times the total for the whole of 2020, according to official figures.
Despite the worsening winter weather conditions, attempts are continuing by refugees and migrants to make the perilous crossing to Kent by coast. French officials have been concerned in recent months that the Channel must not become another place – like the Mediterranean – where people drown as they risk their lives on makeshift boats.
Earlier this month, an estimated 1,185 people crossed the Channel by boat in one day, a record for crossings in a single day. Three people were feared drowned in the busy sea lane earlier this month.
The British government has accused France of failing to control the situation. The French interior ministry says it is honouring its engagements to prevent the departures of small boats, with more than 600 police and gendarmes stationed on the north coast 24 hours a day.
France says it has increased its success rate in stopping the crossings, with 62.5% of departures being stopped in 2021, up from about 50% last year. (The Guardian)