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The UK government is facing renewed calls to create safe and legal routes for asylum seekers after six people died in the English Channel on Saturday in the worst small boats tragedy in nearly two years.
The incident took place early Saturday morning, when a boat carrying about 65 migrants seeking to reach the UK capsized. A French prosecutor told Agence France-Presse that the dead included six men from Afghanistan who were about 30 years old.
In an update on Sunday, the prosecutor’s office said that five people were still believed to be missing. It said that it had launched an investigation into the incident that could eventually lead to the alleged people smugglers being charged with involuntary homicide or injury.
The tragedy highlights the risks taken by migrants who attempt crossings in small boats with the help of people smugglers, as well as the challenge authorities face in trying to prevent them.
It came at the end of a week-long UK government campaign championing its approach to deterring migrants from crossing the Channel.
Axel Gaudinat, a co-ordinator at the migrant support charity Utopia 56, warned that “tragedies like this one will continue to happen if we don’t provide safe routes to people” trying to get to the UK”.
He added that increased policing of the border around Calais had driven migrants to set off in small boats from further down the coast, leading to longer and more dangerous journeys.
The number of people reaching the UK in small boats in the five years since records began hit 100,000 last week, according to Home Office data.
Roughly 15,800 people have already made the crossing this year, according to UK government figures — although that is 15 per cent down on the same period last year. Despite the tragedy in the early hours of Saturday, home office data shows that 509 people arrived on small boats that day.
Although the UK has some nationality-specific routes for displaced people to enter the country from places such as Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan, human rights groups have criticised a lack of available legal means for asylum seekers from other nations to get to Britain, leading them to depend on perilous and illegal options.
UK prime minister Rishi Sunak’s government has repeatedly vowed to “stop the boats”, and has significantly increased financial assistance to France to monitor the coastline with patrols and drones.
Suella Braverman, UK home secretary, said she had spoken to the UK Border Force teams working on Saturday’s incident, adding on Twitter: “My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the tragic loss of life in the Channel.”
Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, said the event was “another tragedy with yet more lives lost or at risk” and that the government “desperately need to stop these dangerous crossings [and] stop the terrible criminal smuggling gangs who profit while lives are lost”.
In 2022, five people died while attempting the crossing. The previous year 27 migrants including several children died when their boat sank, the deadliest such incident recorded. French judges have been investigating alleged wrongdoing by emergency responders in that case and have filed preliminary charges against five of them for allegedly not responding to repeated calls for help.
Speaking at the port of Calais, Hervé Berville, the French junior minister responsible for maritime affairs, vowed to “fight relentlessly” against people smugglers “who are responsible for sending people to their deaths”.