Humanitarian groups demand safe routes to UK after five deaths in Channel

<span>A French police officer looks out to sea in Wimereux, where a child and four adults drowned attempting to cross the Channel on Tuesday.</span><span>Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters</span>
A French police officer looks out to sea in Wimereux, where a child and four adults drowned attempting to cross the Channel on Tuesday.Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

Humanitarian groups have called for new safe routes to Britain after five people died trying to cross the Channel within hours of ministers passing the controversial Rwanda bill.

A child and four adults drowned on Tuesday while trying to reach the UK in a boat from Wimereux, in France. More than 110 people were said to have been on board the vessel when it left the French coastline at 5am.

Despite the deaths, 57 people continued to Britain once the boat’s motor had been restarted, the Calais prefect told the Guardian. The National Crime Agency said it would be supporting the French investigation into the deaths with UK police and Border Force.

Rishi Sunak said the “tragic” deaths showed why his plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was necessary.

During a trip to Poland, the prime minister told reporters: “We want to prevent people making these very dangerous crossings. If you look at what’s happening, criminal gangs are exploiting vulnerable people. They are packing more and more people into these unseaworthy dinghies”.

“We’ve seen an enormous increase in the numbers per boat over the past few years. This is what tragically happens when they push people out to sea and that’s why, for matters of compassion more than anything else, we must actually break this business model and end this unfairness of people coming to our country illegally.”

Humanitarian groups reacted with fury, condemning the Rwanda deportation policy as “cruel” and arguing it would not stop desperate asylum seekers from making the dangerous Channel crossing.

Wanda Wyporska, chief executive officer at Safe Passage International, said: “Waking up to news of men, women and a child dying in such a harrowing way is devastating. This was entirely preventable.

“This loss of life comes just hours after the government ruthlessly pushed through the cruel Rwanda bill. It won’t disrupt the smugglers’ grip on dangerous journeys, with refugees suffering for this government’s failures. We need safe routes, such as a refugee visa, urgently.”

Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said it was “another devastating human tragedy that could and should have been avoided, and for it to happen just hours after the government’s Rwanda bill became law makes it all the more tragic”.

He added: “The only sustainable way to reduce dangerous journeys … is for the government to reduce the need for desperate people to take desperate actions. Instead of hostile, headline-grabbing legislation, we need to see safe routes for those fleeing conflict and persecution, including more options for family reunion, refugee visas, and cooperation with our European neighbours.”


Charlotte Khan, head of public affairs and advocacy at Care4Calais said: “Yet more lives have been lost as a consequence of the hostile environment towards refugees. Each life lost in the Channel is an avoidable tragedy.

“Yesterday, Rishi Sunak had the cheek to use Channel deaths to pressurise the Lords into passing his brutal Rwanda bill. But the responsibility for each one of these deaths lies with his policies. Rwanda won’t save lives. Safe routes will.”

The scheme, which the National Audit Office calculates will cost £1.8m for each of the first 300 migrants deported, also prompted an angry response from the Council of Europe and the UN. Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, called on Sunak to reconsider, saying the plan set a “worrying global precedent”.

Michael O’Flaherty, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner, urged the UK not to remove refugees under the policy and said the bill raised “major issues about the human rights of asylum seekers and the rule of law more generally”.

Labour said it would ditch the Rwanda policy. Keir Starmer said the deaths were an “absolute tragedy and my heart, of course, goes out to the family members of those who have died. It is a reminder that this vile trade run by criminal gangs costs lives and, sadly, more lives today.”

Talking to reporters in Cawood, North Yorkshire, Starmer said: “There’s no doubt that we have to stop these small boat crossings. There’s no doubt about that. The government has lost control of the borders. But this Rwanda gimmick is not the way to stop it.”

Labour said it would use the money to increase border security and tackle people-smuggling gangs.

The Calais prefect, Jacques Billant, said a rescue operation had been dispatched quickly to reach the boat when it got into difficulty. Six people were taken ashore for treatment by emergency services but “despite attempts to reanimate them, five of them died”.

A further 47 people were rescued from the vessel and helped by police, emergency services and doctors in Boulogne-sur-Mer. Four were admitted to hospital for treatment.

Billant said that “despite this complex and delicate situation”, the 57 people who stayed on the dinghy managed to get the motor running, and decided to continue their route to Britain, under the surveillance of French authorities.

Jean-Luc Dubaële, the mayor of Wimereux, told BFM TV: “It’s very painful and very difficult to accept. To have 110 people on an inflatable boat is unprecedented.”

More than 6,000 people have made the journey so far this year – an increase of about a quarter on the same period last year. According to the International Organisation for Migration, 10 people had drowned in the Channel in 2024 before Tuesday, plus one lorry death on a Channel crossing.

Matthew Rycroft, the most senior civil servant in the Home Office, who has overseen the Rwanda scheme for two years, has told MPs he did not have evidence to show it would have a deterrent effect that would make it value for money.

The Channel is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and currents are strong, making the crossing on small boats dangerous. People smugglers typically overload rickety dinghies, often making them barely afloat as they try to reach British shores.