Four migrants have died after their small boat started sinking into the freezing waters of the Channel in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Emergency services have rescued 43 others from the dingy, which got into difficulties halfway between the English and French coasts. Women and children are believed to among those still fighting for their lives in hospital, according to North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale.
A major rescue operation is underway with lifeboats, coastguard rescue teams and an air ambulance all involved in the initial response.
South East Coast ambulance service said they were called by the coastguard at around 3.40am on Wednesday to respond to the tragedy.
It has emerged that a group of fishermen were the first to discover the stranded migrants, with one crew member telling Sky News that he initially heard people “screaming for help”.
Skipper Raymond counted 45 people surrounding his fishing boat. “It was like something out of a second world war movie, there were people in the water everywhere, screaming,” he said.
Raymond’s fishing crew then spent two hours pulling people from the water. He told the broadcaster that the migrants came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Senegal and India, and they told him they had each paid £5,000 to a smuggler in France to get them to the UK.
His crew gave them a “lukewarm shower” and gave them new clothes to keep warm. The team rescued 31 people, he added.
Pictures of the vessel, obtained by Sky News, show the migrant’s dinghy still above the water but contorted and folded in on itself. Migrants are shown crammed into the centre of the flimsy craft, and being pulled up onto a bigger rescue boat.
Local MP Sir Roger Gale said that women and children were among those rescued, telling the House of Commons: “Some of the survivors are still fighting for their lives [in hospital], and I understand that some of them are women and children.”
Britain has been gripped by a sub-zero freeze this week, with temperatures plunging as low as -17C overnight. The sea temperature in the Channel was varying between 10C and 12C in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
A government spokesperson said: “At 0305 today, authorities were alerted to an incident in the Channel concerning a migrant small boat in distress.
“After a coordinated search and rescue operation led by HM Coastguard, it is with regret that there have been 4 confirmed deaths as a result of this incident.
“Investigations are ongoing.”
Two RNLI lifeboats from Ramsgate and Rye, the Royal Navy patrol boat HMS Severn, a French coastguard patrol boat Kermorvan and two fishing vessels were reported to be part of the rescue.
French authorities also sent a helicopter from northern France to help the Kent coastguard, in addition to a French Navy survey vessel involved in the rescue.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons on Wednesday: “Our hearts go out to all those affected and our tributes to all those involved in the extensive rescue operations”
Home secretary Suella Braverman reacted to the incident, saying: “These are the days that we dread; crossing the Channel in unseaworthy vessels is a lethally dangerous endeavour.”
She criticised the people-smuggling gangs who facilitate the Channel crossings, calling them “evil organised criminals who treat human beings as cargo”.
Ms Braverman said her department were committed to tackling “illegal” migration, adding: “It isn’t true that our capacity is limitless. We are already spending millions on hotels every day.”
Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said: “We are devastated to hear news of the incident in the Channel today, and heartbroken at the reports of fatalities.”
He continued: “Sadly, this is not the first time we are waking up to such devastating news of people having lost their lives on a harrowing journey to Britain in search of safety.”
Clare Moseley, founder of refugee charity Care4Calais, said that the government had “blood on their hands.”
“A full year on from 32 people losing their lives in the Channel, our government has done nothing to prevent further deaths and so has failed both the refugees who need our help and our country,” she added.
The UNHCR said it was “gravely concerned at reports of an incident involving a small boat”. They added that they were seeking further information from the UK authorities.
Press Association contributed to this report.
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