Search and rescue teams were called to a small vessel off the coast of the northern town of Berck-sur-Mer, where five people were overboard, French maritime authorities said. The boat left the French coast at 3am on Friday, according to reports, and began to experience problems at around 6am.
Twenty-five individuals who remained on board were towed to the shore, while four others were recovered from a sandbank by firefighters. Some of those rescued are said to have been suffering from hypothermia.
A Sudanese national in his twenties was found unconscious and was declared dead after being taken back to the shore.
A manslaughter investigation has been launched into the incident by the Boulogne-sur-Mer prosecutor.
Steve Crawshaw, director of policy and advocacy at Freedom from Torture, said that in light of the tragedy he was “deeply disturbed” by reports that home secretary Priti Patel was pushing ahead with plans to use force against boats carrying refugees across the Channel.
The Home Office is facing legal action over proposals to turn small boats around at sea, a tactic campaigners warn could put lives at risk.
“People seeking safety in the UK should be treated with compassion and dignity; this inhumane policy of pushbacks is unlawful, and we look forward to seeing the government in court,” said Mr Crawshaw. “As this government knows all too well, this policy will only increase the risk of further loss of life.”
The latest attempts at the dangerous Channel crossing come despite sub-zero temperatures on the French coast.
At least 271 people, including a young child, reached the UK aboard 10 small boats on Thursday, while a number of Border Force vessels have been active off the Kent coast for much of Friday. Around 35 people were seen being escorted ashore in Dover by immigration staff on Friday afternoon, including a man who appeared frail and was being supported by two officers.
So far this year, more than 450 people have made the life-threatening trip across the Channel in small boats, following a record-breaking year in 2021.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “This tragic loss of life in France today is devastating, and our thoughts are with the victim’s family and loved ones.
“It is sadly another reminder of the extreme dangers of crossing the Channel in small boats, and of how vital it is that we work closely together with France to prevent people from making these dangerous crossings.”
The death comes less than two months after at least 27 people died when their boat sank off the coast of France in November.
Mike Adamson, chief executive of the British Red Cross, said: “It is devastating to hear that another person has lost their life attempting to cross the Channel. Our thoughts are with them and their loved ones – who may not even know yet what has happened.
“There are no simple answers, but we urge the government to rethink its plans for making the UK’s asylum system harder to access. This should start with ambitious plans for new safe routes and a commitment to resettle 10,000 people a year.”
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said: “Once again someone has lost their life in tragic and avoidable circumstances, and our thoughts are with the family and friends suffering this devastating loss.
“This tragedy is made all the more unbearable because of the refusal of governments on both sides of the Channel to address the needs and rights of people compelled to attempt these dangerous journeys.
“Unless it’s drastically amended, the draconian Nationality and Borders Bill now going through parliament is set to make the lives of people seeking asylum even harsher while allowing smugglers and other abusers to continue to profit from this completely unacceptable situation.”
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