By Amy Woodyatt, Lauren Kent, Allegra Goodwin and Joseph Ataman, CNN
LondonCNN — At least four people have died after a small boat likely to be carrying migrants capsized in the English Channel, authorities confirmed Wednesday after a major search and rescue operation was launched in the early hours of the morning.
The UK’s South East Coast Ambulance Service said it sent resources to Dover, England, after receiving a call regarding the incident at about 3:40 a.m. GMT (10:40 p.m. ET), PA Media reported.
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman said that “tragically there have been four fatalities,” but said it would be inappropriate to go into details. The UK government declined to comment on the number of people in the boat and the number of people rescued in the joint UK-France operation, which involved resources from the UK’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the British Royal Navy, Border Force, the French Navy and Kent Police.
British media have reported that dozens of people were rescued in the incident on Wednesday morning, citing unnamed government sources.
Temperatures were down to 1 degree Celsius (33.8 degrees Fahrenheit) at Folkestone beach overnight, and across the Channel near Calais it was down to -3 degrees Celsius (26.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Meanwhile, sea temperatures were around 11-12 degrees Celsius (52-54 degrees Fahrenheit) near Kent overnight, according to CNN Weather.
According to U.S. Search and Rescue Task Force, water temperatures of 50-60° F (10-16° C) cause exhaustion or unconsciousness in 1-2 hours, with an expected survival time of 1-6 hours.
The English Channel, a waterway just over 20 miles (32 km) at its narrowest between Britain and France, is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
Refugees and migrants fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty in the world’s poorest or war-torn countries risk the dangerous crossing, often in dinghies unfit for the voyage and at the mercy of people smugglers, hoping to claim asylum or economic opportunities in Britain.
Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said in a statement that “devastating news” of the incident was sadly not isolated.
“It is just over a year since 32 lives were lost in a similar incident,” Solomon said in a statement sent to CNN.
In one of the deadliest incidents in the English Channel in recent memory, a capsized inflatable boat carrying migrants headed for Britain claimed the lives of 27 people in icy waters off the coast of France last November. Five more victims of that incident are still missing and are believed to be dead, a charity spokesperson told CNN.
“Like the individuals involved in today’s incident, they had aspirations for the future. They weren’t forbidden. They were frantically looking for safety,” Solomon continued.
More than 100 refugee charities penned an open letter to Braverman in October requesting that she address the “backlog in asylum cases” and establish safe passageways for refugees to enter the United Kingdom. In the past, Braverman has called illegal English Channel crossings “an invasion.”
Speaking to parliament on Wednesday, Braverman said, “Crossing the Channel in unseaworthy vessels is a lethally dangerous endeavor.” The main reason we are working so hard to dismantle the evil organized criminals who traffic in people’s bodies as cargo, or people smugglers, is because of this.
The Conservative government was criticized by the opposition Labour Party on Wednesday for making “barely any inroads” against people-smuggling gangs and apprehending offenders.
According to Home Office data, the number of migrants arriving in the UK by small boat this year was over 40,000, up from 28,000 last year and fewer than 2,000 in 2019. This is an increase from the 28,000 who arrived in the UK by small boat in 2018.