At least five people died in icy waters off a beach in northern France early Sunday as they tried to traverse the English Channel to Britain, the latest in a string of tragedies in recent years that have underlined the inability of governments on both sides of the waterway to deter attempts of the perilous crossing.
The people were found dead near a beach in the town of Wimereux after their boat was “reported in difficulty nearby” around 1:45 a.m. and several passengers tried to reach the shore, French maritime authorities said in a statement.
More than 30 people were rescued, two of them in serious condition, the statement said. One person was found unconscious and was hospitalized, and another had “severe hypothermia,” the statement said. It added that the French coast guard had deployed several ships in the area “to continue investigations at sea and search for any people who are still adrift.”
French authorities did not identify the people who died or say where they were from, and they did not specify the causes of death. It was not immediately clear what kind of difficulty the boat was facing. Local prosecutors have opened an investigation.
The French maritime authorities said that crossing conditions had improved after several days of bad weather, but that the water temperature in the English Channel was about 9 degrees Celsius, or about 48 degrees Fahrenheit. They also noted that the Channel is one of the world’s busiest maritime routes, with over 400 commercial ships per day.
“It’s a particularly dangerous sector, especially in the middle of winter, for precarious, overloaded boats,” the maritime authorities said.
A tugboat chartered by the French Navy was unable to get very close to the migrant vessel on Sunday because the waters were too shallow, but it deployed a rigid-inflatable boat that picked up several people at sea and dropped them off on the beach, the maritime authorities said. Other migrants were rescued directly by French security forces on land or were winched up by a Navy helicopter, they added.
A dozen people died last year trying to cross the waterway, according to French maritime authorities. One of the highest death tolls in recent years came in 2021, when 27 people died after their boat capsized during a single crossing.
Many people trying to reach Britain across the waterway have fled their home countries in the Middle East or Africa, clustering in small makeshift camps on the coast of northern France before trying to cross in small dinghies or by hiding on trucks taking the Channel Tunnel.
Crossings were down by 36 percent last year, according to the British Home Office, with more than 26,000 attempts prevented.
While the incident on Sunday occurred on the French side of the waterway, and the British Coast Guard had no involvement, the tragedy comes at a time when political messaging about the arrival of asylum seekers traveling by boat to Britain has ratcheted up in the country.
This week, British lawmakers are set to debate contentious legislation that will try to revive a government plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, which the Supreme Court in Britain deemed illegal last year.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government has pledged to stop the small-boat arrivals, which make up only a fraction of asylum seeker arrivals into the country — and an even smaller number of overall migration in Britain — but have become a potent symbol. Conservatives have made deterrence one of their flagship issues ahead of an election planned for this year.
“It breaks my heart to hear about it, but it just shows we’ve got to stop the boats, we’ve got to stop this illegal trade in human beings,” David Cameron, Britain’s foreign secretary, told the BBC on Sunday.
British and French authorities agreed last year that Britain would pay France over $600 million over three years to help pay for drones, a new detention center and hundreds of additional police officers to patrol beaches in northern France — one of several deals that the two countries have struck over the past few years to try to reduce the number of crossings.
Mr. Cameron insisted on Sunday that “ultimately, the only way you can stop the boats is by busting the model of the people smugglers,” by ensuring that the route from France to Britain “doesn’t work.” But human rights groups have said that Britain’s current asylum model is failing and comes at a steep human cost.
Sonya Sceats, the chief executive at Freedom From Torture, a charity that supports asylum seekers in Britain, said that it was “survivors and refugees who are paying the price for this government’s inhumane and punitive policies.”
She added, “We urgently need an asylum system that’s welcoming, fair and compassionate at its heart.”