At Least 5 Die Trying to Cross English Channel, Including a Young Girl

At least five people died at sea off the coast of northern France on Tuesday during an attempt to cross the English Channel, as governments on both sides of the waterway struggle to deter migrants from making the dangerous voyage to Britain.

Those who died — a young girl, a woman and three men — were on an inflatable boat that was heavily overloaded with more than 100 people, according to the French authorities. The boat was one of several vessels that was spotted before dawn on Tuesday by the French Coast Guard near the town of Wimereux.

The deaths came just hours after the British Parliament passed highly contentious legislation to allow the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda, a measure that the British authorities have presented as a way of discouraging people from attempting the hazardous English Channel crossings.

Jacques Billant, the prefect for the Pas-de-Calais area that includes Wimereux, said that the boat had departed with 112 people on board.

“This is unheard-of,” Mr. Billant told reporters in Wimereux.

The boat’s engine stopped several hundred meters from the coast and two people fell into the water, the French maritime authorities said in a statement. The Coast Guard dispatched several vessels and semirigid inflatable boats and were able to rescue those two people, the authorities said.

But the Coast Guard also found several other people who were unconscious and in critical condition aboard the boat. They were brought ashore, but emergency workers were unable to resuscitate five of them, the authorities said.

The exact circumstances of the deaths and the identities of those involved were not immediately clear.

Jean-Luc Dubaele, the mayor of Wimereux, said that one victim was a girl younger than 10. Five people died in January near the same town as they were trying to traverse the English Channel’s frigid waters.

“It’s hard to accept,” Mr. Dubaele told the French news channel BFMTV.

Nearly 50 other people on the boat were taken ashore on Tuesday and a few were hospitalized with minor injuries, but the rest of the group decided to remain on board and, after restarting the boat’s engine, continued toward Britain, according to the French authorities.

While vessels that do not follow maritime regulations would normally be turned back, forcing an overcrowded and unstable boat to do so would risk many human lives, the French maritime authorities said, and Coast Guard ships will sometimes stay on the sidelines to monitor such a vessel without stopping it.

France and Britain have blamed human smugglers for the deaths of people trying to cross the Channel.

“These are criminal networks that put migrant populations at undue risk,” Mr. Billant said, adding that embarking on frigid waters in “overcrowded,” flimsy, and underequipped boats was the same as “going to one’s death.” Fourteen people have died trying to reach Britain so far this year, he said.

In Britain, rights activists and immigration experts have expressed deep skepticism about the law approved by Parliament on Monday night. It has been championed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Conservative government as a way to stop people from reaching British shores on small boats — even though those people make up only a tiny fraction of asylum seekers who arrive in the country and an even smaller number of overall migrants to Britain.

Mr. Sunak, speaking to reporters on Tuesday his way to a NATO meeting in Poland, called what occurred in the Channel “tragic” and a “reminder of why our plan is so important.”

“It underscores why you need a deterrent,” Mr. Sunak said, according to the BBC. “People need to know that if they try and come here illegally they won’t be able to stay; they’ll be returned either to their own country or Rwanda.”

Nearly 36,000 people tried to reach British shores by crossing the English Channel last year, according to a report by the French maritime authorities. One of the worst migrant-related tragedies in the Channel occurred in 2021, when 27 people died after their boat capsized.

Most of those who try to cross the Channel leave from the Pas-de-Calais area of northern France, which at some points is less than 30 miles from the British coastline. Many are from Afghanistan, Albania, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Syria, according to the French authorities, and they cluster in makeshift camps on the coast of northern France before trying to cross in small dinghies.

Many prefer risking the trip over staying in France because they see Britain as an attractive destination with a strong job market where English is spoken, or because they already have family there or people they know from their home country.

While the number of people who tried to traverse the English Channel was down last year compared with 2022, the average number of people per boat grew to 50 from 30, according to the French authorities.

“After years of sounding the alarm on a daily basis, none of this should have happened,” Utopia 56, a nonprofit advocacy group that assists migrants, said in a statement on social media on Tuesday. It criticized the French authorities for systematically seizing and destroying inflatable boats.

“The number of people per crossing continues to rise,” it added, “significantly increasing the risks.”

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