Four people including two young children have died after a migrant boat sank off the coast of France.
More than a dozen people have been taken to hospital and searches have been carried out for any others caught up in the tragedy.
Two children – aged five and eight – and two adults died following the sinking of a boat off Dunkirk, French authorities confirmed.
It is believed to be the single biggest loss of life during the current migrant crisis, and brings the total number of deaths since 2018 to 10.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK had offered “every support” to French authorities as they investigate the “terrible incident”.
My statement on those who tragically lost their lives in the Channel today. pic.twitter.com/W7zT5NKINr
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) October 27, 2020
Home Secretary Priti Patel said she was “truly saddened” to learn of the “tragic loss of life”.
Military resources and civilian boats have been involved in the rescue operation after the vessel was seen in difficulty near Dunkirk.
The people on board are thought to have been trying to cross to the UK, despite wind gusts of up to 18mph.
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The alarm was raised by a yacht which notified search and rescue.
French patrol boats and a helicopter from the Belgian air force were dispatched as well as a fishing boat.
Fifteen people were taken to hospitals in Calais and Dunkirk, according to the Maritime Prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea.
Searches were paused at 5pm due to lack of light and French authorities stress any assessment on numbers is provisional.
An investigation into the causes of the sinking has been launched by the Dunkirk public prosecutor.
Read our full response to today's tragic news that at least three people, including a young child, are feared dead after a boat carrying 20 refugees capsized in the English Channel.https://t.co/lW0FuXOMoA
— Care4Calais (@Care4Calais) October 27, 2020
French citizenship minister Marlene Schiappa said she learned of the tragic incident with “great sadness”.
She added: “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”
Meanwhile Bertrand Ringot, the mayor of Gravelines, south-west of Dunkirk, described the deaths as “tragic”.
In a statement on Twitter he said he last month raised his concerns with the French Government about the theft of boats from Gravelines port to cross the Channel and the outbreak of crossings on makeshift boats.
As the end of the Brexit transition period approaches he will call for more security resources in the area around the port, he added.
In a statement released on Tuesday evening, Ms Patel said she was “truly saddened” to learn of the deaths and reaffirmed her commitment to targeting people smugglers.
She said: “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.”
Mr Johnson echoed Ms Patel’s comments, saying: “My thoughts are with the loved ones of those who tragically lost their lives in the Channel today.
“We have offered the French authorities every support as they investigate this terrible incident and will do all we can to crack down on the ruthless criminal gangs who prey on vulnerable people by facilitating these dangerous journeys.”
Care4Calais founder Clare Moseley said the refugee community in Calais is “utterly devastated”.
She said: “We are grieving for the victims, we stand in sympathy and solidarity with their families and friends.
“It is cruel and horrifying that this time, young children are among the victims.
“This unnecessary loss of life has to stop. No one should ever feel they have to get into a fragile craft and risk their lives crossing the Channel, least of all vulnerable children.”
She called for the incident to be a “wake-up call” for those in power in the UK and France.
Dover MP Natalie Elphicke, who has been outspoken on the issue of Channel crossings, tweeted: “It is terrible that tragedy has struck in the Channel again. People traffickers have no regard for life, no matter how old or young.
“These perilous crossings must be stopped, once and for all, before there is more loss of life in these stormy winter seas.”
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