Child among five migrants dead and 47 rescued in English Channel hours after Rwanda bill passed

A local official said more than 50 people onboard the small boat continued their journey toward England following the disaster

Alex Ross
Tuesday 23 April 2024 16:26 BST
Sunak confirms Rwanda flights will take off in 10 to 12 weeks

A seven-year-old girl is among five migrants who died after being crushed on an overcrowded boat during an attempt to cross the English Channel, just hours after Rishi Sunak’s flagship Rwanda bill was passed by Parliament.

Mr Sunak said the tragic deaths underlined the need for the deterrent of the controversial scheme, but senior figures at the United Nations and the Council of Europe have continued to strongly condemn the plan.

The five migrants appeared to have been caught in a panic on board when the small boat, carrying 112 people, ran aground on a sandbank not long after leaving Plage des Allemands beach in Wimereux in northern France.

French navy sailors discovered them “unconscious and in a serious condition” before taking them ashore where, despite resuscitation attempts, they died, local official Jacques Billant told reporters.

Others were helped from the water during the early morning incident.

Mr Billant said emergency services rescued 47 migrants, with four taken to hospital. He added that more than 50 people decided to remain on the boat and continue their journey toward England.

The five dead included a woman and three men.

Mr Billant, who is the prefect of Pas-de-Calais, said: “The sailors were able to observe the presence on the boat of several people who were unconscious and in serious condition.

“Six people were immediately picked up within the patrol boat for initial treatment before being dropped off as quickly as possible on the beach of Wimereux to be rescued by firefighters. Despite attempts at resuscitation, five of them died.”

Footage from BBC News shows migrants in small boat at Dunkirk on Tuesday morning after the French coat guard confirmed at least five people had died attempting to cross the English Channel (BBC)

Pictures taken at Dover on Tuesday showed suspected migrants being brought ashore by Border Force, with news agency Reuters reporting that around 200 were believed to have disembarked. It’s not yet clear if any of them were on the same boat as the five people who died.

“Despite the complex and delicate situation, 57 people were still in the inflatable, they remained on board, not wishing to be rescued, they managed to restart the engine and continued their sea route, towards the UK, under surveillance by the navy,” Mr Billant added,

One aid worker, who witnessed the return to the French coast of some of the migrants, said the survivors included the father of the girl who had died.

Dany Patoux, of charity Osmose 62, added: “[He] fell into our arms right away. He was crying, in a daze. He saw his little daughter die before his eyes.”

Several people did appear to make the crossing on Tuesday morning with pictures showing suspected migrants being brought ahsore in Dover by the Border Force (PA)

The tragedy happened as at least five small boats reportedly took to the water from the region around Wimereux on Tuesday morning with the mild weather conditions making the crossing attempt more favourable.

During the night before, French police officers had intercepted two boats, two fuel cans, two engines and life jackets before they could be put to sea.

The mayor of Wimereux, Jean-Luc Dubaele, said migrants could still get jobs in Britain, which made it an attractive destination regardless. “The English are responsible for the situation,” he said.

The deaths came just hours after the government’s controversial Rwanda bill was passed, with the legislation set to see asylum seekers flown to the African country to have their claims processed.

Mr Sunak has vowed that the Rwanda scheme will “deter vulnerable migrants from making perilous crossings” and break the business model of the criminal gangs organising the boats.

Reacting to the five deaths on Tuesday morning, he told reporters: “There are reports of sadly yet more tragic deaths in the Channel this morning. I think that is just a reminder of why our plan is so important … it underscores why you need a deterrent very simply.”

Home Secretary James Cleverly said “these tragedies have to stop” and insisted the Government is doing “everything we can” to stop the boats.

The government’s flagship immigration bill was passed by Parliament after the House of Lords withdrew its amendment to the legislation, conceding it must now “acknowledge the primacy of the elected house”.

Police officers patrol the beach of Wimereux, on the northern coast of France, where migrants leave to often attempt small boat crossing to the UK (AFP/Getty)

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill wil see around 150 asylum seekers boarded on to flights to Kigali from July.

Charter planes are expected to leave for Rwanda in 10-12 weeks, with Mr Sunak promising “multiple flights a month”, although minsters conceded numbers being sent to Kigali will be small at first.

The cost of putting each migrant on a plane is expected to reach £11,000, while Rwanda will get £20,000 for each asylum seeker relocated there and a £120 million top-up once 300 have arrived.

Under the bill, Rwanda has been designated a safe country - but there are many human rights groups who say the programme will put refugees at risk, while others say it will have little impact on the number of boat crossings.

Senior United Nations figures have urged Rishi Sunak to reconsider the Rwanda scheme, which they say “shifts responsbility” for refugee protection.

The Council of Europe’s human rights watchdog also has condemned the scheme, saying it raised “major issues about the human rights of asylum seekers and the rule of law”.

On BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday morning, Michael Tomlinson, the minister for illegal migration, and BBC Radio 4 presenter Mishael Husain took part in a heated exchange on the issue, with Mr Tomlinson telling Ms Husain he was “frustated” with her questions on details for the flights.

Appearing to be rattled, Mr Tomlinson struggled to keep his composure as Ms Husain repeatedly interrupted him. At one point she said his arguments were “irrelevant”. Accusing her of trying to stop him giving an explanation, he said: “You asked a question with an incredulous tone. I am trying to answer it. Then you interrupt me.”

There were more fireworks when she asked how long it would take to carry out the Government’s plan to send 50,000 illegal migrants already in the UK to Rwanda.“I haven’t done the mathematics, I’m sure you can,” snapped Mr Tomlinson.

She interrupted: “No, no I can’t because you won’t tell me how many will go each month.” Mr Tomlinson told her: “That’s because I can’t tell you at the moment.”

The deaths come following a week of no recorded boat crossings by the Home Office - but come after a weekend earlier this month when 748 migrants arrived in Kent after crossing the English Channel.

Figures published by the government department showed there were 214 people brought ashore from five boats on 13 April, and 534 on 10 boats on 14 April - that brough the total number of migrants arriving in the UK in small boats to 6,265 for 2024.

The data does not include migrants who have failed to reach Britain.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We remain committed to building on the successes that saw arrivals drop by more than a third last year, including tougher legislation and agreements with international partners, in order to save lives and stop the boats.”

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