Six dead and dozens rescued after migrant boat capsizes in Channel as search continues

Migrants were using shoes to bail water out of the sinking boat, according to one volunteer

Rachel Flynn
Sunday 13 August 2023 06:22 BST
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At least six people have died with others still believed to be missing after a migrant boat capsized in the English Channel.

Dozens of people were rescued in an operation involving French and British authorities after a boat struggled in the water on Saturday morning.

Accounts from survivors of the shipwreck say at least 65 people took to the sea in the boat that sank, French authorities said in a statement this afternoon.

With two migrants still believed to be missing, a large-scale search and rescue operation continues, involving two French aircraft, numerous boats and merchant vessels, the UK Coastguard and a British chartered ship.

About 58 people have been rescued, with several brought off lifeboats on stretchers. Six people, one of whom was airlifted to hospital, were recovered in a serious condition but were later pronounced dead.

Philippe Sabatier, the deputy public prosecutor of Boulogne, said that the six deceased individuals were believed to be Afghan men and aged in their thirties.

He added that those rescued included some children and were mostly from Afghanistan and some were Sudanese.

At least 22 people were dropped off at Dover by UK crews while 36 were taken to the port of Calais on a French boat, France’s maritime prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea said.

One volunteer told how migrants were using shoes to bail water out of the sinking boat. She told Reuters that “there were too many on the boat”.

Home secretary Suella Braverman said: “My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the tragic loss of life in the Channel today.

“I have spoken with our Border Force teams this morning who have been supporting the French authorities in response to this incident.”

Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said the latest incident was an “appalling, deeply shocking tragedy”.

‘Notre Dame du Risban’, a French lifeboat, enters the port of Calais following a rescue operation after a migrant boat trying to cross the Channel capsized
‘Notre Dame du Risban’, a French lifeboat, enters the port of Calais following a rescue operation after a migrant boat trying to cross the Channel capsized (Reuters)

“We must stop these crossings and defeat the criminal people smugglers.

“There can be no more headline-chasing gimmicks or madcap schemes that just make everything worse,” he wrote on Twitter.

The rescue operation began after information was received from a patrol boat that a migrant boat was sinking off Sangatte, around five miles from the French coast, according to a statement from the maritime prefecture.

The mayor of Téteghem, a small community east of Dunkirk, told a French news outlet that migrants had been gathering along the coast in recent days, with train services affected as migrants appeared on the tracks.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the incident “underscores the need for meaningful action” to reduce dangerous crossings, and urged the government to focus on creating an “orderly and humane asylum system”.

“We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life in today’s sinking of a boat in the English Channel. Our hearts go out to the victims, survivors, and their loved ones. We also thank the rescuers who helped save many lives under harrowing circumstances,” he said.

He accused the government of “focusing on passing expensive and unworkable legislation and shutting down existing safe ways to get to the UK”, adding: “There are constructive alternatives we have set out that would create an orderly and humane asylum system.”

Steve Smith, chief executive of refugee charity Care4Calais, described it as an “appalling and preventable tragedy”.

“Those who died were not just statistics, but individual people: someone’s children, someone’s siblings, and possibly someone’s parents. This terrible loss of life demonstrates yet again the need for a system of safe passage to the UK for refugees.”

Asli Tatliadim, head of campaigns at Refugee Action, said the incident had been “predictable and inevitable” because the government’s “hostile deterrent policies are designed to keep people out and not keep people safe”.

“Until the government creates more ways for people to travel to the UK to claim asylum, more people will die trying to reach safety here,” she added.

Natalie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover, said the fatal incident reinforced the need for joint patrols in the Channel.

She said: “Today’s tragedy underlines why we must stop the small boats to keep people safe and prevent loss of life in the Channel.

“These overcrowded and unseaworthy deathtraps should obviously be stopped by the French authorities from leaving the French coast in the first place.

Rescued migrants sit on the ‘Notre Dame du Risban’ after a migrant boat trying to cross the Channel from France capsized
Rescued migrants sit on the ‘Notre Dame du Risban’ after a migrant boat trying to cross the Channel from France capsized (Reuters)

“The time has come for joint patrols on the French coast and a cross-Channel security zone before any more lives are lost.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “These deaths are devastating and our thoughts are with the victims’ families and friends at this time.

“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.”

At least 50 people are thought to have drowned attempting to cross the Channel since 2018, while others have lost their lives attempting to board lorries and trains in France or walk through the Channel Tunnel.

On Thursday, people were rescued from another sinking dinghy that had reached British waters. The RNLI said it pulled several people from the water but believed everyone was accounted for.

‘Thoughts and prayers’: Suella Braverman
‘Thoughts and prayers’: Suella Braverman (PA Wire)

The previous day, French authorities reported six children suffering from hypothermia had been taken to hospital after their boat went down off the coast near Sangatte.

On Saturday morning, two people, including an eight-month-old baby, were killed after their boat sank off the coast of Tunisia, with five others still missing.

Meanwhile, the number of migrants crossing the English Channel over the last five-and-a-half years reached more than 100,000 on Thursday, after 755 people crossed the Channel in small boats that day – marking the highest daily number so far this year.

Some 343 people in six boats were detected crossing the Channel on Friday, according to Home Office figures.

It means more than 1,000 made the journey over two days and takes the provisional total for the year so far to more than 16,000.

All 39 people moved on to the ‘Bibby Stockholm’ have now been evacuated
All 39 people moved on to the ‘Bibby Stockholm’ have now been evacuated (PA Wire)

It came as the Home Office came under fire as all asylum seekers were ordered to move off the housing barge Bibby Stockholm after bacteria was found in its water system.

All 39 people were evacuated from the barge and will be temporarily placed back in hotels, with a date yet to be confirmed for the migrants to return to the floating accommodation.

The department said all 39 of those on board had been disembarked as a “precautionary measure” after samples from the water system showed levels of Legionella requiring further investigation.

The Home Office said no migrants have fallen sick or developed legionnaires’ disease, which is a serious type of pneumonia, and that they are all being provided with “appropriate advice and support”.

But, after the evacuation, the Home Office was accused of “startling incompetence”.

Bacteria was found in the water system of ‘Bibby Stockholm’ on Thursday
Bacteria was found in the water system of ‘Bibby Stockholm’ on Thursday (PA Media)

Former Brexit secretary David Davis said the barge would not serve as a “solution” to the backlog even without the presence of the bacteria.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The primary thing that’s been revealed has been the startling incompetence of the Home Office itself… It’s really, really hard to understand how, at all layers, this could not be caught early”.

Mr Kinnock also wrote to his opposite number on Saturday asking what the Home Office knew about the risk of the bacteria being present before moving migrants onto the barge.

Department officials are understood to have been told by Dorset Council on Wednesday evening about the discovery of initial results indicating that the bacteria was present, but the transfer of a further six migrants onto the barge still went ahead on Thursday.

Government sources said the UK Health Security Agency then told ministers on Thursday that Legionella had been found in the vessel’s water system and advised them that they needed to remove those six migrants.

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