Five die crossing English Channel just hours after Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda Bill passes

British government bracing itself for legal challenges to the scheme to send asylum seekers to the east African country

Five migrants, including a child, died in an attempt to cross the English Channel from France to the UK in an overcrowded small boat on Tuesday, hours after the British government 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 the UK.

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 metres away from the shore and several people fell into the water.”

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,” Mr Billant said.

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

Statistics released by Britain’s home office on Monday showed that arrivals of small boats – usually flimsy inflatable dinghies – were up by 24 per cent so far this year. About 6,265 illegal immigrants landed on southern England’s beaches up to April 21st.

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

The British parliament finally passed legislation late on Monday to allow the deportations after peers in the House of Lords backed down on amending it.

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.

The Lords backed down after MPs rejected a requirement that Rwanda could not be treated as safe until the secretary of state, having consulted an independent monitoring body, made a statement to parliament to that effect.

Lord Anderson, the cross-bench peer responsible for the call, said: “The time has now come to acknowledge the primacy of the elected house and to withdraw from the fray.”

Under the Rwanda scheme, anyone arriving illegally in the UK after January 1st, 2022 will be sent to Rwanda, some 6,400km away. More than 50,000 people have arrived since that date, according to official figures.

Human rights groups and other critics say the policy is inhumane. Mr 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.”

Campaigners said deterrence policies 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.

Mr Sunak has insisted he will not let the European Court of Human Rights block flights to Rwanda.

The court is an institution of the Council of Europe, which urged Mr Sunak to abandon the Rwanda plan.

The council’s human rights commissioner, Michael O’Flaherty, said: “The United Kingdom government should refrain from removing people under the Rwanda policy and reverse the Bill’s effective infringement of judicial independence.”

The United Nations has also called for Mr Sunak to rethink the Rwanda plan.

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: “The new legislation marks a further step away from the UK’s long tradition of providing refuge to those in need, in breach of the Refugee Convention.”

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.

– Reuters/PA