Migrants drown in English Channel hours after UK passes Rwanda policy


  • World
  • Tuesday, 23 Apr 2024

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attends a press conference at Downing Street in London, Britain, April 22, 2024. REUTERS/Toby Melville/Pool/File Photo

WIMEREUX, France/DOVER, England (Reuters) -Five migrants, including a child, died in an attempt to cross the English Channel from France to Britain in an overcrowded small boat on Tuesday, hours after Britain passed a bill to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda in a move to deter the dangerous journeys.

The deaths occurred when a boat carrying 112 people set out to cross one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and panic took hold among the passengers not far from the shore.

Rescuers picked up 49 people, with four taken to hospital, but others stayed on the boat, determined to get to Britain.

The French coastguard was still searching for any survivors.

"A tragedy occurred on a boat overloaded with migrants early this morning. We deplore the deaths of five people, a seven-year-old girl, a woman and three men," local prefect Jacques Billant told reporters.

"The engine stopped a few hundred meters away from the shore and several people fell into the water," Billant said.

The coastguard said 58 people had stayed on board.

"They did not want to be rescued, they managed to restart the engine and headed towards Britain," Billant said.

The boat had left from Wimereux, about 32 km (20 miles) southwest of the French port of Calais.

More than 6,000 people have arrived in Britain this year via small, overloaded boats - usually flimsy inflatable dinghies - that risk being lashed by the waves as they try to reach British shores.

Tens of thousands have made the journey since 2018, and Britain has responded by spending two years trying to overcome opposition to a divisive policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda which it hopes will deter people from making the crossings.

FURTHER CHALLENGES

The British parliament finally passed legislation overnight to allow the deportations and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said he expects the first flights to take off in 10 to 12 weeks, giving time for further legal challenges from charities, campaigners and unions.

Human rights groups and other critics say the policy is inhumane but Sunak told reporters on Tuesday that the government was acting out of compassion, wanting to prevent people smugglers from pushing vulnerable people out to sea.

"They are packing more and more people into these unseaworthy dinghies, you've seen an enormous increase in the numbers over the past few years," he said. "This is what tragically happens."

Several British border force boats were seen arriving in Dover, southern England, on Tuesday, carrying large groups of migrants.

A Reuters witness estimated that around 200 people believed to be migrants disembarked at Dover - about 42 km (26 miles) across the water from Calais - on Tuesday.

It was not clear if the migrants on the boat involved in the Wimereux incident were among them.

Under the Rwanda scheme, anyone arriving illegally in Britain after Jan. 1, 2022 will be sent to Rwanda, some 6,400 km (4,000 miles) away. More than 50,000 people have arrived since that date, according to official figures.

Campaigners said deterrence policies simply would not work.

"I know that when you’re running for your life, not even the risk of death can stop you trying to reach safety," said Kolbassia Haoussou from the British-based Freedom from Torture group.

The mayor of Wimereux, Jean-Luc Dubaele, said migrants could still get jobs in Britain, which made it an attractive destination regardless.

"The English are responsible for the situation," he said.

The first deportation flight to Rwanda in June 2022 was blocked by European judges. Britain's Supreme Court then upheld a ruling that the scheme was unlawful because migrants were at risk of being sent back to their homelands or to other countries where they would be at risk of mistreatment.

(Writing by Ingrid Melander and Kate Holton; reporting by Tassilo Hummel and Inti Landauro in Paris, Sarah Young and Michael Holden in London, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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