France and UK warned Channel risks becoming 'graveyard for children' after migrant deaths

28 October 2020, 07:43 | Updated: 28 October 2020, 12:30

The deaths of two young children and two adults as they attempted to reach the UK in a migrant boat should be a "wake-up call" for politicians on both sides of the Channel, charity bosses have said.

A five-year-old and an eight-year-old were among the four people who died when their boat sank off the coast of Dunkirk in northern France on Tuesday.

Another 15 migrants were rescued, with eight suffering hypothermia and two in cardiac arrest, local firefighters said.

French authorities have said further searches are being carried out in the area and the death toll could rise.

The tragedy is believed to be the single biggest loss of life during the current migrant crisis, bringing the total number of deaths since 2018 to 10.

Clare Moseley, founder of refugee charity Care4Calais, said the "horrifying" incident should be a "wake-up call" for leaders in the UK and France.

"We are grieving for the victims, we stand in sympathy and solidarity with their families and friends," she said.

"It is cruel and horrifying that, this time, young children are among the victims."

She added: "We have to provide a safe and legal process by which refugees can have their UK asylum claims heard, that's the way to put an end to terrifying, dangerous sea crossings and stop tragedy striking again."

Charity Save the Children has called for London and Paris to "come up with a joint plan that ensures the safety of vulnerable children and families".

"The English Channel must not become a graveyard for children," it warned.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the incident "terrible" and said the UK had offered "every support" to French authorities, while Home Secretary Priti Patel said she was "truly saddened".

Ms Patel added: "We are in touch with our French counterparts who are leading on the response and have offered whatever support they need as they investigate this incident.

"This tragic news highlights the dangers that come with crossing the Channel and I will do everything I can to stop callous criminals exploiting vulnerable people."

French citizenship minister Marlene Schiappa said she felt "great sadness" in light of the incident.

"Despite the resources of the state, which were all mobilised in the SOS operation, the losses are heavy and the final toll is still uncertain," she said.

The people on board the migrant boat had been trying to reach the UK despite wind gusts of up to 18mph.

After the vessel was seen in difficulty, French patrol boats and a helicopter were dispatched, as well as civilian boats.

Fifteen people were taken to hospitals in Calais and Dunkirk, according to the Maritime Prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea.

An investigation is under way into the cause of the sinking.

Analysis: People smugglers know how to change tactics to avoid getting caught
By Mark White, home affairs correspondent

British government ministers had been warning for months that a significant tragedy in the English Channel was only a matter of time.

They, along with their French counterparts, have become increasingly alarmed by the huge increase in small migrant boats attempting to reach the UK.

So far this year, more than 7,400 migrants have been intercepted as they made the crossing - compared to 1,825 for the whole of 2019.

Despite a promise by the home secretary to make it "unviable" for migrants to illegally cross the Channel, more than 2,000 made that perilous journey last month alone.

Predictably, politicians and officials have vowed to re-double efforts to pursue the criminal gangs responsible for the trade in human cargo.

Dozens of people involved in trafficking migrants by boat have been prosecuted over the past few years but the traffickers have a sophisticated network, able to switch tactics and locations quickly to help them evade detection.

Over the summer months, they adopted swarming tactics - launching up to 10 boats at a time, often overwhelming French naval patrols and allowing most boats to make it to UK waters.

Priti Patel has met with her French counterpart on several occasions over the past 12 months and wants France to do more to ensure boats are prevented from launching in the first place.

The British government is making more money available and is offering closer co-operation to help in those efforts.

As officials on both sides of the Channel continue to search for the best way to tackle the crisis, there is significant concern about another possible switch in tactics by the criminal gangs.

Previously, migrant boat activity would cease as the weather worsened over autumn and winter.

But Tuesday's tragedy showed the people traffickers are now willing to attempt that crossing no matter how treacherous the conditions in the Channel are.