Five Iraqis and Syrians die trying to cross Channel to UK

Deaths come as British government faces mounting pressure to create more safe passages into the country

The remains of an inflatable small boat on the shore in Wimereux, northern France, in November 2021. AP Photo
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Five migrants trying to cross the Channel to Britain died in French waters in the early hours of Sunday, French local authorities said.

The small boat overturned as it attempted to launch from a beach in Wimereux, south of Calais, an official told Reuters, adding that one person in a critical condition had been taken to hospital in Boulogne, northern France.

Dozens were pulled from the cold water but the overnight rescue effort was complicated as the waters were too shallow for the French navy's boats that came to help, the local prefecture said in a statement.

Sea temperature was around 9 degrees Celsius (48 degrees Fahrenheit), it said.

Those dead are believed to be Iraqi and Syrian, local newspaper La Voix du Nord said.

A tugboat patrolling the coast went to the rescue and found the bodies, the first reported deaths in the Channel in 2024.

They come as the UK government faces mounting pressure to create more safe passages into the country.

Speaking to the BBC, Foreign Secretary David Cameron said: “It's heartbreaking when these things happen.

“We've got to stop the boats,” he said, repeating a British government slogan.

A report published this week by the UK Home Office found that Britain has failed to create any new safe and legal routes into the UK for asylum seekers.

The report included a cap on refugee numbers and a pledge to explore alternatives for those with skills rather than proposals for additional avenues into Britain.

Earlier this month, a French report said that the UK is not sufficiently co-ordinating with it in efforts to reduce the number of migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats.

Pointing to the “uncertain effectiveness” of illegal migration policies, the report published by France's Court of Accounts, said the country is “struggling to develop operational co-operation arrangements” with the UK.

In December, two migrants died in two separate incidents as they attempted to cross the Channel.

The region around Calais, the jumping-off point for the shortest crossing to England, has long been a magnet for migrants.

The boats are a political priority for the British government and a bone of contention with France, as tens of thousands of people a year have been making the dangerous crossing.

More than two decades after the closure of a Red Cross Centre in Sangatte, hundreds of people still live in tents and makeshift shelters near Calais and Dunkirk, hoping for a chance to make the crossing hidden in a lorry or aboard a small boat.

According to the British government, nearly 30,000 people crossed the Channel from mainland Europe to Britain in small boats in 2023, an annual drop of more than a third.

In November 2021, at least 27 people drowned when their dinghy capsized.

Updated: January 14, 2024, 1:09 PM