LONDON (AP) — An overloaded boat carrying migrants capsized before dawn Saturday in the English Channel, killing at least six people and leaving more than 50 others to be rescued, according to French authorities.
About 65 people were estimated to have boarded the boat and two people may still be lost at sea, the Maritime Prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea said.
When rescuers plucked people from the waters, six were initially in critical condition. One of those, who was flown by helicopter to a Calais hospital, was pronounced dead and the other five later perished and were ferried to shore.
“This morning, a migrant boat capsized off Calais,” French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on social media. “My thoughts are with the victims.”
The deaths come as Britain’s ruling Conservative party has sought to stop crossings of small, often unseaworthy, boats with a variety of policies that have come under fire for failing to stem the flow of migrants.
French authorities noted a marked increase in attempted crossings from the coast since Thursday during the onset of milder weather. British authorities said 755 people crossed the channel in small boats Thursday, the highest daily number this year.
Small boat arrivals are down 15% from the number at this point last year. As of Thursday, 15,826 had been detected in the year to date, compared to 18,600 at this time last year.
Last year, five migrants died and four were reported missing while attempting to cross from the northern coast of France. In November 2021, a boat carrying migrants sank, resulting in the deaths of 27 individuals.
U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who said on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that there had been a “tragic loss of life,” met Saturday with Border Force officials.
“This incident is sadly another reminder of the extreme dangers of crossing the Channel in small boats and how vital it is that we break the people smugglers’ business model and stop the boats,” a spokesperson for Braverman said in a statement.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made “stop the boats” a rallying cry and a focus of his political platform but his efforts have faced setbacks.
The centerpiece of policies designed to deter people from risking their lives at sea is legislation that would deport refugees who arrive illegally back to their home country or a safe third country. But plans to fly people to Rwanda have been shot down by an appeals court and are now being appealed by the Supreme Court.
As Conservatives kicked off what they were calling “small boats week,” they hailed the first arrivals Monday of asylum seekers to be housed in what essentially was a floating dormitory moored off England’s south coast.
The barge Bibby Stockholm, which had been used to house oil rig workers, was leased to save the 6 million pounds ($7.6 million) spent on hotels each day for some 51,000 asylum seekers.
It was outfitted to house 500 men, but on Friday, the initial 39 on board had to be evacuated when the deadly bacteria that causes legionnaires’ disease was found in the water. The Home Office said no one onboard had become ill.
Charity groups for refugees and members of the opposition Labour Party have strongly criticized Sunak’s policies, but even his fellow Tories have heaped criticism for the barge fiasco.
Member of Parliament David Davis said that even if the barge worked properly it would only house a day’s worth of new arrivals and pointed to the need for processing asylum claims more quickly.
“The primary thing that’s been revealed has been the startling incompetence of the Home Office itself,” Davis told BBC Radio 4. “It’s really, really hard to understand how, at all layers, this could not be caught early.”
Steve Smith, chief executive of refugee charity Care4Calais, called the deaths an appalling tragedy that could have been prevented if the U.K. allowed people to apply for asylum in France and travel safely to Britain.
“This terrible loss of life demonstrates yet again the need for a system of safe passage to the UK for refugees,” Smith said. “It would put the people smugglers out of business overnight.”
A report from a patrol boat about a migrant vessel in distress near Sangatte in France triggered a search and rescue operation Saturday that involved British and French vessels. Three French ships, a helicopter and a plane canvassed the area and two British ships participated in the search.
Three dozen people were taken to the port of Calais on a French boat and at least 22 were taken to Dover by U.K. rescuers.
The incident is under investigation by the Boulogne prosecutor’s office.
Adamson reported from Paris.