Six Afghan men died when a migrant boat en route to Britain capsized in the Channel early Saturday, French officials said, as a search continued for those missing.
The deputy public prosecutor for the French coastal city of Boulogne, Philippe Sabatier, told AFP that all six of the dead were Afghan men believed to be in their 30s.
He added that the rest of the passengers were “almost all Afghans with some Sudanese, mostly adults with some minors” and said that 49 people had survived – 36 of the French coastguard and 13 of their own British counterpart.
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 mobilized to search the Sangatte area in northern France, along with two British ships.
“HM Coastguard is currently assisting the French authorities, Gris Nez, with a search and rescue response to an incident involving a small boat in the Channel,” a British interior ministry spokesman said.
The spokesman added that interior minister Suella Braverman will later lead a meeting of the 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 Channel’s tragic loss of life today,” Braverman said in a post on social media site X, formerly known as Twitter.
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 are supporting the French authorities in response to this incident.
– Suella Braverman MP (@SuellaBraverman) August 12, 2023
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne also posted that her “thoughts go out to the victims” as she praised the efforts of the rescue teams.
A spokesman for the Utopia56 humanitarian group blamed border “repression” for the tragedy, telling AFP that the difficulty in securing legal passage “only increases the danger 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 the survivors disembarking from a patrol boat with emergency services in the area.
The Channel between France and Britain is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and the current is usually strong.
More than 100,000 migrants have crossed the Channel in small boats from France to southeast England since Britain began publicly recording arrivals in 2018, official figures revealed on Friday.
French authorities stepped up patrols and other preventive measures after London agreed in March to send Paris hundreds of millions of euros a year for the effort.
In recent days there have been several attempts to cross the Channel by boats after the weather conditions improved.
Overnight on Thursday, Premar reported that 116 migrants were rescued, including children, in three separate boats.
Some 755 migrants were spotted on Thursday in 14 small boats headed for England’s southern coast, UK interior ministry statistics showed, the highest single-day tally this year.
Those boats bring 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 cross.