At least six people have died and dozens of others have been rescued after a migrant boat crossing the English Channel capsized.
Two people are still feared missing with more than 50 rescued, French authorities have said.
A search and rescue operation involving five French ships, two British ships and a helicopter is under way following the incident off Sangatte in northern France.
A member of the lifeboat crew told Sky News: “When we arrived we could only see large amounts of water.
It was the helicopter, which guided us to find the bodies. And then we had to recover the bodies. One after another.”
Local mayor Franck Dhersin said a vast rescue operation was launched at around 4am UK time, as dozens of boats tried to make the crossing at the same time.
He said: “Near Sangatte they unfortunately found dead people.”
A UK government spokesperson said: “These deaths are devastating and our thoughts are with the victims’ families and friends at this time.
“This incident is sadly another reminder of the extreme dangers of crossing the Channel in small boats and how vital it is that we break the people smugglers’ business model and stop the boats.”
Home Secretary Suella Braverman chaired a meeting with Border Force officials who have been responding to the incident on Saturday morning.
She posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, and said: “My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the tragic loss of life in the Channel today.”
The tragedy happened as Conservative ministers face calls to quit after Legionella bacteria was found on the Bibby Stockholm barge housing migrants – in what has been branded a “complete and utter farce”.
Meanwhile, at least two people were killed, including an eight-month-old infant, and 13 rescued after a migrant boat capsized off Tunisia’s Gabes coast.
How the rescue unfolded
4.20am on Saturday 12 August: A merchant ship reported seeing a migrant boat in difficulty off the coast of Calais. Over the next forty minutes, five other commercial vessels confirmed this, and several people were already overboard.
A 25-seater life raft was deployed, alongside RIB Hurricane. Dover’s coastguard was called into assist, alongside the RNLI.
5.50am: More British ships joined the rescue operation.
6am: 32 people were rescued – one was immediately evacuated by helicopter to hospital and later pronounced dead.
Two British ships rescued a further 23 people.
A helicopter picked up five unconscious people, who were later declared dead.
‘Government has blood on its hands’
A union boss warned the UK government has “blood on its hands” over the Channel tragedy and described its approach as a “moral disgrace”.
Head of bargaining at the Public and Commercial Services union, Paul O’Connor said: “There is a readily available policy to prevent this tragic loss of life.
“Unfortunately, our calls on the government to adopt it have fallen on stony ground. It’s clear they have no desire to prevent these dangerous crossings.
“Instead, they’re pouring taxpayers’ money down the drain on policies which are unlawful, unworkable and doomed to failure.”
Ministers “want to scapegoat refugees” in a bid to distract from “catastrophic failings” on people’s living standards,” Mr O’Connor said.
“They don’t care that people die as a result. They have blood on their hands.”
Conservative MP for Dover, Natalie Elphicke, said the tragedy underlines the need for joint patrols in the Channel.
“These overcrowded and unseaworthy deathtraps should obviously be stopped by the French authorities from leaving the French coast in the first place.
“The time has come for joint patrols on the French coast and a cross-Channel security zone before any more lives are lost.”
Desperate efforts to scoop water out of sinking ship using shoes
One volunteer who was on board one of the rescue boats described the migrants’ frantic efforts to scoop water out of their sinking vessel using their shoes.
Anne Thorel said: “We saved 54 people, including one woman… There were too many of them on the (migrant) boat.”
Meanwhile, France’s Maritime Prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea said: “Unfortunately, six people were recovered in serious condition and one of them, evacuated by helicopter to Calais hospital, was declared dead.”
In a later statement, the French authorities added that five people rescued by the vessel Notre Dame du Risban were also pronounced dead.
The five deceased, together with 37 other people, have been taken to the port of Calais.
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HM Coastguard said it is assisting French authorities in response to the incident involving a “small boat”, adding that a Dover RNLI lifeboat has been sent as part of that assistance with Folkestone and Langdon Bay coastguard rescue teams.
Ten people collected by an RNLI boat were taken to Dover – however the vessel had survivors of another operation on board.
French authorities said: “The exact count of the people collected on each of the boats is not easy.
“The human toll in the British sector is being consolidated.”
An investigation has now been opened by the prosecutor’s office in Boulogne, a city on the coast of northern France.
The number of people who have crossed the English Channel in small boats in the past five years has passed 100,000.
The incident comes as Rishi Sunak‘s government spent the week making announcements about its efforts to reduce the number of asylum seekers, hoping to win support from voters as the ruling Conservative Party trails in opinion polls.
Thursday’s figures were recorded as another major search and rescue operation was launched after 17 migrants went overboard and were pulled from the water.
The Home Office said they were all taken ashore for medical checks.