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The Home Secretary has described the “appalling” incident in which several migrants are feared to be lost at sea after trying to reach Britain by boat as an “absolute tragedy”.
As many as three people could be unaccounted for after trying to cross from France to the UK in a dinghy earlier this week.
Two men – both Somali nationals – were rescued off the Essex coast on Monday and searches for any remaining survivors have now been called off.
Speaking to the PA news agency on Thursday while visiting the Thames Valley Police Training Centre in Reading, Priti Patel said: “It is a tragedy. It is an absolute tragedy, it really is.
“Clearly there are investigations taking place right now so we have to let that investigation process occur.
“But I can give everyone solid, solid assurance that my work with both France and other counterparts as well is very much based on stopping the loss of life.”
Asked what she would say to their families, Ms Patel said: “It is terrible, it is tragic and it is absolutely appalling.
“We want to stop the loss of human life, and everything that we are doing as a Government is focusing on ensuring that we work in joint co-operation with other governments and other countries to actually get to the source of these issues, which is to stop the people-smuggling.”
The rescue operation, involving Border Force, RNLI lifeboats and the Coastguard, began on Monday afternoon near the port town of Harwich.
But an “extensive search” for a third man was called off at around 2pm on Tuesday and no further searches are thought to be ongoing.
PA understands that the two men brought ashore told rescue crews there were initially five people on board when the boat set off from France on Saturday, and two fell overboard at the weekend.
By the time the boat entered the UK search zone of international waters, around 30 miles off the coast of Essex where the rescue took place, one other person was also unaccounted for.
Sources told PA that officials cannot be certain whether anyone has died because the reports of how many people were in the boat after it entered the sea are unverified and searches have so far been unable to establish whether anyone entered the water.
The incident prompted an outcry from campaigners and aid charities, who reiterated calls for the Government to do more to help those in search of safety so they do not risk the dangerous crossing.
The Home Secretary defended her department’s policies on Wednesday as she insisted that efforts to tackle migrant crossings are about “saving lives and stopping people drowning”.
She told the Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee: “We don’t want to see people dying at sea.
“We want to stop people drowning at sea. I can’t emphasise this enough.
When pressed if a tactic that allows Border Force officers to turn migrant boats back towards France meets human rights and maritime laws and whether she is comfortable that it does not put lives at risk, she repeatedly insisted it has a “legal basis”, adding: “None of this is illegal.”
It is understood that the boat involved in Monday’s rescue had not been subject to a Border Force turnback operation prior to the incident.
Since the start of the year, almost 20,000 people have reached the UK on board small boats, according to data compiled by PA. This is more than double the total for the whole of 2020.