At least four people have died after a small boat likely to be carrying migrants capsized in the English Channel, authorities confirmed Wednesday after a major search and rescue operation was launched in the early hours of the morning.
The UK’s South East Coast Ambulance Service said it sent resources to Dover, England, after receiving a call regarding the incident at about 3:40 a.m. GMT (10:40 p.m. ET), PA Media reported.
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman said that “tragically there have been four fatalities,” but said it would be inappropriate to go into details. The UK government declined to comment on the number of people in the boat and the number of people rescued in the joint UK-France operation, which involved resources from the UK’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the British Royal Navy, Border Force, the French Navy and Kent Police.
British media have reported that dozens of people were rescued in the incident on Wednesday morning, citing unnamed government sources.
Temperatures were down to 1 degree Celsius (33.8 degrees Fahrenheit) at Folkestone beach overnight, and across the Channel near Calais it was down to -3 degrees Celsius (26.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Meanwhile, sea temperatures were around 11-12 degrees Celsius (52-54 degrees Fahrenheit) near Kent overnight, according to CNN Weather.
According to U.S. Search and Rescue Task Force, water temperatures of 50-60° F (10-16° C) cause exhaustion or unconsciousness in 1-2 hours, with an expected survival time of 1-6 hours.
The English Channel, a waterway just over 20 miles (32 km) at its narrowest between Britain and France, is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
Refugees and migrants fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty in the world’s poorest or war-torn countries risk the dangerous crossing, often in dinghies unfit for the voyage and at the mercy of people smugglers, hoping to claim asylum or economic opportunities in Britain.
Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said in a statement that “devastating news” of the incident was sadly not isolated.
“It is just over a year since 32 lives were lost in a similar incident,” Solomon said in a statement sent to CNN.
Last November, 27 people drowned in bitterly cold waters off the coast of France after an inflatable boat carrying migrants bound for Britain capsized, in one of the deadliest incidents in the English Channel in recent years. Another five people remain unaccounted for from that incident, and are presumed dead, a spokesperson for the charity confirmed to CNN.
“Like those involved in this incident today they had hopes and dreams for the future. They weren’t illegal. They were desperately seeking safety,” Solomon added.
In October, more than 100 refugee charities wrote an open letter to Braverman, urging her to address what they called a “backlog in asylum cases,” and to create safe routes for refugees to travel to Britain. Braverman has previously referred to illegal crossings of the English Channel as “an invasion.”
“Crossing the Channel in unseaworthy vessels is a lethally dangerous endeavor,” Braverman told parliament Wednesday. “It is for this reason, above all, that we are working so hard to destroy the business model of the people smugglers – evil organized criminals – who treat human beings as cargo.”
The opposition Labour Party criticized the Conservative government on Wednesday for making “barely any inroads” into combating people-smuggling gangs and arresting perpetrators.
The number of migrants traveling across the Channel onto England’s shores has been growing in recent years, with more than 40,000 people arriving in the UK by small boat this year, up from 28,000 last year and less than 2,000 in 2019, according to Home Office data.
Monica Garrett contributed reporting.