Two children aged five and eight and two adults have died after a boat capsized off the French coast in stormy weather while trying to cross the Channel to the UK.
Emergency services rushed to the scene after a frantic Mayday radio plea, which was received by a small fishing boat nearby, heard the migrants scream: ‘Help us, we’re sinking!’
Fifteen migrants have been saved so far after they were pulled from the waters near the Loon-Plage region of Dunkirk just after 9.30am.
The rescue and search operations were still under way until 5pm, when they were paused due to lack of light.
Before darkness fell, one migrant was sensationally winched from the sea off the by the crew of a Belgian Air Force air sea rescue helicopter.
The person, who has not been identified, was spotted despite stormy conditions and airlifted to hospital in Calais.
The regional administration for France’s Nord region said in a statement that the dead children were aged five and eight. It is believed the younger child died at sea and the second died in hospital.
One woman and one man are also confirmed to have died and it is believed another child, a baby, may still be missing in the water.
Last night sources told The Sun: ‘The boat had not left French waters but the conditions were pretty tough.
‘The radio message came in at about the same time a yachtsman had reported seeing the vessel in difficulties.
‘It was incredibly fortunate the alarm was raised quickly enough for a rescue operation to be mounted.’
Two children aged five and eight and two adults have died after a boat capsized off the French coast in stormy weather while trying to cross the Channel to the UK. Pictured: This photo of a ferry entering Dover on Tuesday demonstrates the stormy weather at the time of the incident
Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a statement posted on Twitter she was ‘truly saddened to learn of the tragic loss of life in French waters this morning.’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK had offered ‘every support’ to French authorities as they investigate the ‘terrible incident’.
Home Office Clandestine Channel Threat Commander Dan O’Mahoney said he was ‘deeply saddened’ to hear of the deaths and added there was ‘no way’ the boat was going to get across the Dover Strait.
He said the weather was ‘appalling’ at the time, with wind speeds of 42 knots (around 48mph).
It is believed to be the single biggest loss of life during the current migrant crisis, and brings the total number of deaths since 2018 to 10.
Five French vessels and a Belgian helicopter were involved in the rescue searches after the migrant boat was reported in distress off the coast of Dunkirk, 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 Prefecture Maritime for the English Channel and North Sea said that one migrant was spotted and then then rescued by a Caiman helicopter of the Belgian Air Force and evacuated to a Calais hospital.
But they added: ‘Despite the consequent system put in place, searches have not made it possible to find other possible castaways.
‘The maritime prefect of the Channel and the North Sea authorizes the stopping of searches with directed means at 6:00 p.m., due to nightfall and lack of new elements since morning.’
An investigation into the cause of the sinking was opened by the Dunkirk prosecutor.
Ms Patel added: ‘My thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones at this time,’ Patel said in a statement.
‘We are in touch with our French counterparts who are leading on the response and have offered whatever support they need as they investigate this incident,’ she added. ‘
‘This tragic news highlights the dangers that come with crossing the Channel and I will do everything I can to stop callous criminals exploiting vulnerable people.’
Mr Johnson echoed Ms Patel’s comments, saying: ‘My 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.’
Commander O’Mahoney added: ‘I’m deeply saddened by the tragic incident in the Channel this morning, my thoughts are with all those affected.
‘I have been in touch with our French counterparts to offer our support to their response and investigation.’
Retired coastguard officer Andy Roberts said: ‘It’s absolutely tragic. Something like this was always eventually going to happen and sadly it now has.
‘There is no way that boat was ever going to successfully cross the Dover strait.
‘The weather was appalling. There were 42 knots of wind in Dover which is around 48mph.
The major operation was launched this morning off Loon-Plage near Dunkirk after the boat capsized
A French SAMU rescue helicopter lands close to a rescue vessel during the search operation
‘We won’t know the full extent of what has happened until Wednesday afternoon as it is now dark now and thermal imagery on helicopters can only detect the living.
‘If people were in the water for more than two hours, there is every chance they will already be dead sadly.
‘It’s been a tragedy waiting to happen.’
Former child refugee Lord Alf Dubs, who was part of the Kindertransport which rescued children from the Nazis, said Tuesday’s loss of life was ‘heartbreaking’.
The Labour peer wrote on Twitter: ‘Today’s tragic loss of life in the Channel, involving children, is heartbreaking.
‘These deaths are a result of the increasing desperation of refugees as their legal routes to safety close.
‘Without legal routes their journeys are dangerous and traffickers are the only winners.
Yvette Cooper MP, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: ‘This is truly awful news – and it is even more distressing that children should be involved in this tragedy.
‘The thought of children ending up in the cold waves is terrible.
‘These boats are incredibly dangerous. The criminal gangs who organise journeys in these precarious dinghies are profiting from putting lives at risk and from other people’s desperation.
‘The Home Affairs Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into Channel crossings and into the work that is urgently needed to prevent more lives being lost.’
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, said: ‘News that a five-year-old child has died at sea while trying to reach safety in the UK is the horror that we dreaded would come.
‘Where is the decency and common humanity of the UK Government?
‘How can they allow our children to perish in this way? It would be easy to create a legal route for refugees who reach northern France to seek asylum in the UK; there is no excuse for failing to act now.’
Mariam Kemple Hardy, head of campaigns at Refugee Action, said the incident was ‘absolutely heartbreaking’.
She added: ‘Our thoughts are with the people caught up in this horrible tragedy, their families, and the rescuers.
‘No-one wants to see people make dangerous crossings but the Government’s hostile rhetoric does nothing to help.
‘It must stop trying to look tough and urgently create more safe and legal routes for people to seek sanctuary in the UK.’
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds tweeted: ‘This is an absolute tragedy. Our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones and people who have been injured.
‘It is a heartbreaking reminder of the human cost of this crisis.’
The mayor of the port town of Gravelines between Calais and Dunkirk, Bertrand Rigot, earlier said that two children and several adults had died in the incident.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a statement posted on Twitter she was ‘truly saddened to learn of the tragic loss of life in French waters this morning’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK had offered ‘every support’ to French authorities as they investigate the ‘terrible incident’
He tweeted: ‘The assessment of the situation is tragic with the death of two children and several adults.
’18 migrants have been taken into the care of emergency services.’
Eight of those who were rescued were in a state of hypothermia – including one considered serious – and were taken to hospitals in Calais and Dunkirk.
La Voix Du Nord reported an English yachtsman sounded the alarm after seeing the Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB) carrying around 20 people capsize.
Local media reported that the migrants were Iraqis and Kurdish Iranians.
The Dunkirk prosecutor’s office has launched an investigation into the incident.
Dunkirk public prosecutor Sébastien Pive said six migrants were taken into custody for interview.
The major operation was launched this morning off Loon-Plage near Dunkirk after the boat capsized.
The French Coastguard were alerted by the sailing boat Marbuzet of the presence of a migrant boat in difficulty in the Dunkirk channel.
The nearby fishing vessel Meuchik, Dunkirk pilot boat, lifeboat Notre Dame des Flandres of the national sea rescue society (SNSM) from Gravelines, the Garonne of the French Navy, Customs patroller Jacques Oudart Fourmentin (JOF) as well as a Belgian Air Force helicopter were all involved in the rescue.
French rescue workers stand next to a rescue vessel during the search operation
The French Prefecture Maritime for the English Channel and North Sea district earlier said in a news release: ‘Search operations are still underway.
‘At the same time, an operational PC was activated on land under the authority of the Dunkirk sub-prefect to coordinate the resources engaged by SDIS 59 and SAMU 59.
Clare Moseley, founder of aid charity Care4Calais, said ‘Everyone here in Calais is utterly devastated by this news.
‘We are grieving for the victims, we stand in sympathy and solidarity with their families and friends.
‘It is cruel and horrifying that this time, young children are among the victims.
‘This unnecessary loss of life has to stop. No one should ever feel they have to get into a fragile craft and risk their lives crossing the Channel, least of all vulnerable children.
‘Refugees feel pushed to take these risks because of the policies of the French and British governments.
‘Living in miserable conditions on the streets of Calais, hounded by the police, and left with no clear, legal process to have their UK asylum cases heard, refugees feel they have no other option but to take huge risks to make it to Britain, and some pay with their lives.
‘Instead of trying to put in place better laws to protect refugees, the UK Government is currently planning to scrap legal protections that allow refugee children in Europe to be reunited with their families in the UK.
‘This loss of life should be a wake up call for those in power in France and the UK.
‘We have to provide a safe and legal process by which refugees can have their UK asylum claims heard, that’s the way to put an end to terrifying, dangerous sea crossings and stop tragedy striking again.’
Police officers stand near a police car at Dunkirk port as the search operation continues
Folkestone MP Damian Collins said: ‘This is an avoidable tragedy and shows how important it is for migrant boats to be intercepted at sea before they get to the UK side of the channel.
‘We must stop people traffickers from profiting whilst putting lives in danger.’
The Maritime Prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea had issued a call for vigilance on Monday warning of difficult weather conditions at sea between Tuesday and Friday.
It expected an ‘active disturbance causing a strong strengthening of the wind’ to cross the Channel coast and North Sea this morning with its influence felt until the end of the week.
Southwest winds were predicted to reach 30 knots (34.5mph) with gusts as strong as 50 knots (57.5mph).
The French maritime agency warned the sea will be most rough near the coast while heaviest in the most exposed areas and offshore.
A spokesman for the French maritime agency said on Monday: ‘In view of these disturbed weather conditions, the maritime prefect strongly advises against any practice of water sports and calls on all users of the sea to be extremely careful.’
A policeman stands next to a rescue vessel during the search operation
‘It seems that one person, who might be an infant, is still missing,’ Tourmente said, noting that stormy conditions had made the attempted crossing especially perilous.
Dover and Deal MP Natalie Elphicke said: ‘It is terrible to hear that tragedy has struck in the Channel once again.
‘People traffickers have no regard for human life, no matter how old or young.
‘These perilous crossings must be stopped, once and for all, before more lives are lost in these stormy winter seas.’
Bridget Chapman, of Kent Refugee Action Network, tweeted: ‘I hope that everyone is safe. We need safe & legal routes now!’
A helicopter taking off from FREMM Frigate Normandie to help with the rescue of migrants from the Channel
A SAMU (French Urgent Medical Aid Service) helicopter lands at Dunkirk port in norther France
International refugee law specialist Dan Sohege, director of Stand For All, wrote: ’18 people we know of have suffered already because of this. We don’t know how many more may have done.
‘Whatever your view on people crossing the channel, remember these are people with names, with families, with hopes and dreams.
High of 7,565 Channel crossings so far this year
There have been some 7,565 Channel crossings this year alone which have forced the Government to use former barracks as migrant camps.
Just 1,850 migrants tried to make the crossing in 2019.
A record-breaking 409 migrants made it across the Channel on September 2.
And the figure includes a single-month record of 1,954 in September.
So far this month, 436 migrants have been detained.
Conservative Lee Anderson (Ashfield) told the Prime Minister the asylum system is ‘broken and being abused’, to which Mr Johnson replied in the Commons: ‘I have a great deal of sympathy with those who are so desperate as to put their children in dinghies or even children’s paddling pools and try to cross the Channel.
‘But I have to say what they’re doing is falling prey to criminal gangs and they are breaking the law. They’re also undermining the legitimate claims of others who would seek asylum in this country.
‘That is why we will take advantage of leaving the EU by changing the Dublin regulations on returns and we will address the rigidities in our laws that makes this country, I’m afraid, a target and a magnet for those who would exploit vulnerable people in this way.’
The massive rise comes despite a vow from Home Secretary Priti Patel last autumn to have made the crossings an ‘infrequent phenomenon’ by this point.
The Home Office has sought to blame French authorities and ‘activist lawyers’ for the increase and for difficulties removing asylum seekers once they arrive in Britain.
The previous monthly record for migrant arrivals was 1,075, set in July. August’s arrivals saw 235 reach Britain on just one day – which was also a record.
Miss Patel is seeking a deal with French authorities that would allow migrant boats to be turned back in the Channel. No agreement has yet been reached.
At the beginning of September, the Mail revealed the taxpayer was hit with a £1billion bill for the asylum system last year.
‘They aren’t just statistics. Please show respect.’
Tuesday’s tragedy in the Channel comes after a migrant drowned while attempting to make the crossing on Sunday, October 18.
The police and fire brigade were called to the beach at Sangatte near Calais at around 8am after his body was spotted in an orange life jacket.
Despite an autopsy last week confirming he died of accidental drowning while trying to reach the UK from France, his identity has not yet been revealed.
He is being referred to as ‘BB’ within migrant aid groups until his next of kin have been informed.
The man, who is understood to be aged in his 20s and was discovered by horrified rescue workers near the town hall, was identified by a friend to the medical examiner’s office.
Both police and the coroner are satisfied he was Iranian despite being found with no documents with him.
Humanitarian organisation Seeking Sanctuary paid their respects on Saturday by laying flowers at a plaque in Dover, Kent dedicated to all migrants who have died.
An autopsy last Tuesday found the latest migrant to have lost their life while attempting the crossing died of accidental drowning.
French news website France Bleu said rescuers found 50 Euros on the body of the man.
It is believed he died within hours of trying to make the treacherous 21 mile crossing of the Dover Strait.
A post mortem will be held in due course while an investigation is underway into the death.
The victim was the second to die this year making the treacherous crossing.
Sudanese national Abdulfatah Hamdallah, 28, drowned while trying to make the crossing in August in a 3ft dinghy.
Two people also died last year.
Iranian Mitra Mehrad, 31, drowned after falling overboard while saving a baby’s life, according to a friend.
She was travelling on a small dinghy carrying 19 other migrants – including a child and a baby – when she went missing in horrendous conditions on August 9.
A huge air search and rescue operation was launched by British authorities after three people went overboard wearing life jackets off the Kent coast.
Ms Mehrad had jumped into the water in a bid to reach a rescue rope from another boat as the one they were travelling on began to sink.
The other two were quickly recovered, but Ms Mehrad could not be tracked.
Her body was found on Dutch waters on August 18, and she is believed to be the first person to have died while making the perilous crossing.
An Iraqi man also drowned after attempting to swim over using plastic bottles as a life jacket and wearing diver fins.
A total of 7,565 migrants have now attempted to make the perilous crossing across the English channel this year compared to just 1,850 in 2019.
In September alone 1,954 made the crossing in small boats.
So far this month, 436 migrants have been detained.
Sudanese national Abdulfatah Hamdallah (left), 28, drowned in August while trying to make the crossing in a 3ft dinghy. Iranian Mitra Mehrad, 31, drowned in the same month after falling overboard while saving a baby’s life, according to a friend
Mr Rigot wrote to French Interior minister Gérald Darmanin last month expressing his concerns about the theft of boats from Gravelines used to make crossings of the Channel and the resurgence in crossings using makeshift vessels.
He called on the French government to provide additional resources to help.
Max Williams, organiser of human rights campaign group Channel Rescue, said: ‘At least three people including a child have lost their lives after a boat capsized whilst they were trying to reach safety in the UK.
‘Others are missing and more have been taken to hospital.
‘Our thoughts go out to those currently in hospital and the families of the people who have lost their lives.
Pictured is the FS Garonne which aided Tuesday’s search and rescue operation in the Channel
‘This is a burgeoning humanitarian crisis, with men, women and children risking their lives in search of the protection offered to them under international laws that the UK have signed.
‘The government must urgently ensure safe and legal passage for those seeking safety.’
Detention Action director Bella Sankey said: ‘News that a five year old child has died at sea while trying to reach safety in the UK is the horror that we dreaded would come.
‘Where is the decency and common humanity of the UK Government? How can they allow our children to perish in this way?
‘It would be easy to create a legal route for refugees who reach Northern France to seek asylum in the UK; there is no excuse for failing to act now.’
Pictured is a French coastguard vessel similar to the one which was involved in Tuesday’s rescue mission
Phil Kerton, co-director of humanitarian organisation Seeking Sanctuary, said: ‘Desperate people have lost their lives in another tragic and distressing accident.
‘Our thoughts at ‘Seeking Sanctuary’ are with their families who are yet to learn of their loss and with with those of their companions who were lucky enough to be rescued, but who must now live with the memories of this tragedy.
‘Like everyone else, each of the dead had hopes for leading a future life in peace and dignity, all seeking to realise their innate potential.
‘We continue to urge that innovative solutions are found for the welfare of the world’s exiles and for their safe access to places where they may request asylum.
‘Solutions that do not involve more security measures such as patrols, walls and fences, but which see each of them as a human being in need of advice and help and with a genuine contribution to make to society.’