French authorities rescue almost 180 migrants crossing the English Channel in one day

Three people have died after falling into the sea during the crossing in a small boat

Migrants on an inflatable dinghy trying to cross the English Channel to Britain in October 2023. Reuters
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Three people have died trying to cross the English Channel in small boats as French authorities launched rescue operations to help almost 180 migrants.

Four separate rescue missions were launched on Wednesday after the Gris-Nez regional operational surveillance and rescue centre (CROSS) was alerted to several migrant boats in difficulty off the coast of Pas-de-Calais, northern France.

The occupants of one boat refused offers of help for more than two hours, during which time three people fell overboard off Cap Gris-Nez, authorities said.

At 11.15am the National Gendarmerie nautical brigade launch Eulimène offered help to the first small boat, but its occupants carried on without requesting assistance, France's maritime prefect of the Channel and the North Sea said.

However, “around noon, the passengers … asked to be rescued and recovered. The crew began their rescue and took on board 56 people”, it said.

“Once the rescue was completed at around 1.20pm the rescued people informed the crew of the BSAM Seine that three people had fallen into the sea earlier in the day during the attempted crossing.

“The BSAM Seine then began searching and saw a body drifting, the CROSS Gris-Nez simultaneously engaged the Dauphin helicopter of the French Navy and the public service patrol boat Flamant to try to find the body and other people possibly at sea.

The helicopter spotted three people in the sea, one of whom was already under the water.

“With instructions from the helicopter, the BSAM Seine found and recovered a first person, unconscious, but she could not be resuscitated on board. She was unfortunately declared dead at the dock.”

The authorities said the weather deteriorated and they had to call off the search for the other two missing people.

The 56 rescued people were taken to the port of Calais, and the Boulogne-sur-Mer public prosecutor’s office opened an investigation.

On Thursday, Patrick Leleu, deputy prosecutor at the judicial court of Boulogne-sur-Mer, said: “I can confirm the death of three migrants who fell into the water this afternoon off the coast of Cap Gris Nez.

“The investigation is ongoing.”

Earlier in the day rescue teams helped 55 migrants on a different boat and took them to Boulogne. They also rescued 14 people in difficulty off the coast of Sainte-Cécile and a further 54 people off the coast of Pas-de-Calais.

In total 179 people were pulled to safety by rescue crews.

Afghan migrant documents dangerous journey across Channel – video

Afghan migrant documents dangerous journey across Channel

Afghan migrant documents dangerous journey across Channel

The UK said it was not involved in the rescue operation.

“We can confirm there has been an incident in the Channel involving a small boat in French waters,” a UK government spokesman said.

“French authorities are leading the response and investigation. We will not be commenting further at this stage.”

“We warn anyone who plans to cross the Channel about the risks involved. This maritime sector is one of the busiest areas in the world, with more than 600 commercial ships sailing there in transit per day and the weather conditions are often difficult (120 days of wind greater than or equal to force 7 on an annual average for example).

“It is therefore a particularly dangerous sector, even when the sea seems beautiful,” the French maritime prefect of the Channel and the North Sea said.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, urged the authorities to rethink their approach to tackling small boat crossings.

“Our thoughts go out to the families of those affected by the tragic loss of life in the English Channel this afternoon and to all those who valiantly answered the distress call,” he said on Wednesday.

“This is yet another avoidable human tragedy.

“Men, women and children from countries such as Afghanistan are risking their lives in the Channel as a direct consequence of safe routes being so limited and ineffective.

“There will be more deaths unless the government rethinks its approach.

“Instead of the unlawful and costly Rwanda plan, we need a plan to provide sanctuary for those fleeing persecution, violence and torture without having to take dangerous journeys.”

Mr Solomon said the UK should expand options for family reunion, introduce refugee visas and put in place an agreement with the French government to “give people a fair hearing and treat them with dignity and humanity”.

This week, Home Office figures showed that more than 2,000 migrants have arrived in the UK so far this year after crossing the strait between England and France.

The number of Channel arrivals is 32 per cent lower than the total recorded this time last year (2,953) but 49 per cent higher than the total at this stage in 2022 (1,482).

A total of 29,437 migrants arrived in the UK after making the crossing in 2023, down 36 per cent on a record 45,774 arrivals in 2022.

Updated: February 29, 2024, 1:29 PM