Four migrants trying to cross the Channel died in French waters, a French maritime official told the BBC. Around 70 people were trying to get into a small boat attempting to launch from a beach when it overturned in the early hours of Sunday morning, French media reports said.
Dozens were pulled from the water during overnight rescue efforts in Wimereux, to the south of Calais. Foreign Secretary David Cameron said it was “heartbreaking”. Local authorities say the four dead were from Iraq and Syria.
One other person is in critical condition and has been transferred to a hospital in nearby Boulogne-sur-Mer, a spokesperson from the French maritime prefecture told the BBC. People got into trouble almost immediately after the boat departed the French coast for England at around 02:00 local time (01:00 GMT).
Dozens were trying to board the vessel as it left the beach and found themselves in difficulty at sea, the French maritime prefecture said.
A tugboat patrolling the coast attended the scene and found the bodies.
Around 50 firefighters and several police vehicles were deployed to help, according to regional newspaper La Voix du Nord. Dozens of survivors were taken to a local community centre, the paper reports.
Rescue efforts continued at around 05:00, with several boats and a French Navy helicopter being deployed, the paper adds.
The French coast guard, who also confirmed the deaths, said a helicopter is flying in the area. The UK Coastguard had no involvement as the incident occurred in French waters very close to the beach near Wimereux.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the Channel deaths “must be a wake up call to take decisive action” – including the provision of safe routes for those fleeing war-torn countries.
The deaths come one day after the first small boat crossing of the year was recorded.
It follows a nearly four-week period up to 11 January when no crossings to the UK were recorded, which the Home Office says was due to poor weather conditions.
The provisional total for 2023 – 29,437 crossings – is down on the record 45,774 crossings recorded for the whole of 2022.
But last year’s total is still the second-highest annual number of crossings on record.
Speaking to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, Lord Cameron said it was “heartbreaking” to hear more lives had been lost in Channel waters.
He said the British government had done “a huge amount” to support French authorities with policing and intelligence operations.
And he insisted that passing the UK government’s Rwanda bill – which aims to send some asylum seekers to the African country – was “essential” to save lives and stop people crossing the Channel on small boats.
The bill is designed to discourage migrants from trying to cross the Channel in small boats.
Tory MPs are piling pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak over the bill, which Mr Sunak is trying to revive after the Supreme Court ruled the earlier scheme was unlawful. peaking on the same programme, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the incident was a “tragic loss of life” and added: “I absolutely agree we need to stop these Channel crossings”.
Separately, a French report earlier this month stated that the UK was not passing on enough information about small boats crossing the Channel.
According to the Court of Accounts, which audits spending in France, intelligence provided to French police was often “first level” and “very general”.