Six Afghan males died when a migrant boat heading to Britain sank in the Channel early Saturday, French officials said, as a search continued to find those still missing.
The deputy public prosecutor for the French coastal city of Boulogne, Philippe Sabatier, told AFP all six fatalities were Afghan men believed to be in their 30s.
He added the rest of the passengers were “almost all Afghans with some Sudanese, mostly adults with some minors” and said 49 survivors were rescued — 36 by the French coastguard and 13 by their British counterparts.
The French coastal authority Premar said up to two people were listed as missing on Saturday afternoon, after the prosecutor’s office had initially said between five and 10 passengers were unaccounted for.
Three French ships, a helicopter and a plane were mobilised to search the area off Sangatte in northern France, along with two British ships.
“HM Coastguard is currently assisting the French authorities, Gris Nez, in a search and rescue response to an incident involving a small boat in the Channel,” a British interior ministry spokesperson said.
The spokesperson added interior minister Suella Braverman would later chair a meeting with Small Boats Operational Command, part of Britain’s Border Force and created to deal with small boat crossings of the Channel by migrants.
My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the tragic loss of life in the Channel today.
This morning I spoke with our Border Force teams who have been supporting the French authorities in response to this incident.
— Suella Braverman MP (@SuellaBraverman) August 12, 2023
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne likewise posted that her “thoughts go out to the victims” as she praised the efforts of the rescue teams.
A spokesperson for the Utopia56 humanitarian group blamed border “repression” for the tragedy, telling AFP that the difficulty of securing legal passage only “increases the dangerousness of crossings and pushes people to take more and more risks to reach England”.
The boat capsized around 2:00 am local time (0000 GMT) off the northern coast of France, according to the prosecutor.
An AFP reporter in Calais saw some of those rescued disembarking from a patrol boat with emergency services on site.
The Channel between France and Britain is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and strong currents are common.
More than 100,000 migrants have crossed the Channel on small boats from France to southeast England since Britain began publicly recording the arrivals in 2018, official figures revealed on Friday.
French authorities have stepped up patrols and other deterrent measures after London agreed in March to send Paris hundreds of millions of euros annually towards the effort.
In recent days there have been several attempts to cross the Channel in boats after weather conditions improved.
Overnight Thursday, Premar reported that 116 migrants had been rescued, including children, on three separate boats.
Some 755 migrants were detected on Thursday on 14 small boats headed for England’s southern coast, UK interior ministry statistics showed, the highest tally on a single day this year.
Those boats brought the number of arrivals so far this year to nearly 16,000.
Five migrants died at sea and four went missing while trying to cross to Britain from France last year.
In November 2021, 27 migrants died when a boat capsized in the Channel.
The following year saw a record 45,000 migrants make the crossing.