At Least 4 Dead as Boat Capsizes in English Channel

LONDON — At least four people died when a small boat capsized in the English Channel early on Wednesday, according to British officials, the latest in a series of tragedies in the waterway that have underscored the government’s inability to cut off the route.

A day after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced plans to combat such crossings, the authorities were initially alerted to reports of a small boat in distress in the Channel around 3:05 a.m., and began a coordinated search-and-rescue operation led by the coast guard, according to a statement from the British Home Office.

Harrowing images taken from aboard a fishing vessel that was among the first to respond to the scene and shared with British news outlets showed the boat pulled up alongside a partially deflated dinghy, as a number of people, some wearing life vests, cling precariously to ropes on the side of the vessel.

In the clip, many of the people still on the dinghy were visibly panicked, and in later footage, a number of people are seen struggling in the frigid waters of the Channel in the dark as a rescue lifeboat also attempts to come to their aid.

Vessel tracking data from the Arcturus, the fishing vessel involved in the rescue, showed that around 2 a.m., the ship began making a tight circle around an area of the Channel between Dungeness in Kent and the French port of Boulogne-sur-Mer. This is presumably when it was responding to the dinghy.

Ben Squires, who owns the boat involved in the rescue, told ITV News that the skipper recounted the details of the scene to him and described it as a “horrific” incident.

“We’re talking about human beings and people’s lives, and lives have been lost today, but I’m really glad that we managed to save 31,” he said, noting that they managed to pull those people onboard their boat. “The heroes are the skipper and the crew of our boat today.”

The number of people trying to make the dangerous and occasionally fatal journey from northern France to England has swelled in the past year, and the crossings have become a political problem for the Conservative government.

Although the authorities confirmed that four people had died, the agency did not immediately confirm the condition of the other passengers or the total number aboard. Lifeboats and helicopters from the British Coast Guard were involved in evacuating passengers from the scene of the accident, and a Royal Navy patrol boat, a French Navy helicopter and a French fishing boat also helped.

Temperatures in Britain have dropped below freezing for several days in a row, and conditions in the Channel grow especially treacherous during the winter months, adding to the risks for those trying to make the journey.

Volunteer lifeboats were dispatched from several locations along the Kent coastline.

Mr. Sunak announced on Tuesday a renewed effort to cut down on migrant crossings of the Channel, saying that Britain would seek to clear a huge backlog of asylum applications.

Mr. Sunak has put an emphasis on rejecting asylum claims from Albania, which has become one of the leading sources of migrants using the Channel route.

“We have to stop the boats, and this government will do what must be done,” Mr. Sunak said in a statement on Tuesday to Parliament.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, Mr. Sunak said, “Our hearts go out to all those affected and our tributes to all those involved in the extensive rescue operation.”

Suella Braverman, the British home secretary and the minister responsible for immigration policy, said in a statement to Parliament that the deadly incident and others like it were the “most sobering reminder possible of why we have to end these crossings.”

“These are the days that we dread,” she said, adding that, “crossing the Channel in unseaworthy vessels is a lethally dangerous endeavor.”

“But it is for this reason above all that we are working so hard to destroy the business model of the smugglers,” she said.

Ms. Braverman has been the target of intense criticism by human rights groups for her harsh stance on those arriving by small boat in Britain, including her emphatic support for a program that would send asylum seekers who arrive by that means to Rwanda, in central Africa. At one point, she said it was her “dream” to see the flights take off.

The policy has been challenged in Britain’s courts, and so far no asylum seekers have been sent to the African nation.

Last month, Britain and France signed a new agreement to try to stem the crossings by small boats, with Britain agreeing to pay France 72.2 million euros, about $76.4 million, during 2022 and 2023 to increase patrols on northern French beaches. At its narrowest point, the distance between the two nations on either side of the Channel is just 21 miles.

While Britain has been slow to process asylum claims, most people who arrive by small boat and whose cases have been examined are refugees fleeing war and persecution and therefore entitled to protections under international law, researchers have found.

Although the number of small-boat crossings has grown, they still make up only a tiny fraction of the overall number of arrivals in Britain, migration experts say.

But as the number of boat crossings rises, the human toll mounts. Many of the boats that set off from the French coast are inflatable dinghies packed with dozens of people and unfit for traversing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, where high winds can bring dangerous swells.

The hazards of the boat crossings were starkly illustrated when an inflatable dinghy carrying 30 people capsized in French territorial waters near Calais and Dunkirk in November 2021. Twenty-seven of the passengers were killed in that accident, the most serious since migrant groups began collecting data.

Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, a charity that supports asylum seekers, said in a statement that there were “no words to express our horror” as news of the fatal incident broke on Wednesday. The charity has been pushing for an official inquiry into potential failures that led to such a high loss of life in the 2021 capsizing.

A year on from those deaths, “Our government has done nothing to prevent further deaths and so has failed both the refugees who need our help and our country,” she noted.

She also criticized the lack of a safe route into the country for refugees fleeing war, calling the deaths on Wednesday “wholly unnecessary and preventable.”

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