Four dead and 39 rescued after migrant boat capsizes in English Channel in 'tragic incident'

WATCH: Rescue crews head out as part of a major operation in the English Channel

Four people have died after a migrant boat capsized in the English Channel in what's being described as a 'truly tragic incident'.

The Royal Navy, French navy, Coastguard and RNLI lifeboats were all involved in a major rescue operation off the Kent coast on Wednesday morning.

RNLI lifeboats were launched from Dover at 3.07am on Wednesday, followed by more from Ramsgate and Hastings.

A Government spokesman said: "At 0305 today, authorities were alerted to an incident in the Channel concerning a migrant small boat in distress.

"After a coordinated search and rescue operation led by HM Coastguard, it is with regret that there have been four confirmed deaths as a result of this incident, investigations are ongoing and we will provide further information in due course.

"This is a truly tragic incident. Our thoughts are with the friends and families of all those who have lost their lives today."

  • WATCH: Helicopter footage of the RNLI and Coastguard rescue efforts

Government sources initially told the PA news agency 43 people were rescued, but the figure has since been revised to 39 after updated information from authorities involved.

In Dover, a black body bag was brought to shore on a stretcher from the Dover RNLI lifeboat at around 11.15am. It was taken up to waiting forensics tents outside the RNLI headquarters.

There are likely to have been freezing temperatures in the Channel overnight amid a cold snap sweeping across the UK.

The temperature recorded at Dungeness overnight was between 0C and 1C, according to the Met Office.

East Kent Hospitals confirmed that two casualties were taken to the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford.

One person died, and the other patient is receiving treatment.

In a statement, a spokesperson said: “East Kent Hospitals was placed on standby in the early hours of this morning following an incident off the Kent coast, working with SeaCAMB, Navy, Border Force, Kent Police and other partners.

"We were stood down at around 9am.

“We have received two casualties at William Harvey Hospital.

"Our thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives.”

A black body bag was brought to shore on a stretcher from the Dover RNLI lifeboat at around 11.15am. Credit: PA

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Coastguard said: "HM Coastguard continues to coordinate a search and rescue response to an incident involving a small boat in the English Channel, working with the Navy, Border Force, Kent Police and other partners. We have tasked Dover, Dungeness, Hastings and Ramsgate RNLI lifeboats and Deal, Dungeness, Langdon, and Folkestone Coastguard Rescue Teams, along with the Coastal Operations Area Commander.

"HM Coastguard helicopters from Humberside, Lydd and Lee on Solent and one from the French Navy are also responding, together with a fixed wing Coastguard aircraft. Three military vessels – two from the UK and one French - are also searching. In addition, three fishing vessels in the area are assisting with the search and rescue. South-East Ambulance, Kent Police and an air ambulance have deployed to assist the shoreside response.

"The incident is ongoing and we have no further information at present.

"HM Coastguard will continue to safeguard life around the seas and coastal areas of the UK, working with search and rescue resources in the area. If a vessel needs search and rescue assistance, HM Coastguard will continue to respond to all those in need. Our thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives today."

The tragedy came a day after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveiled a raft of new measures in a bid to curb Channel crossings as he told MPs in the Commons: "We have to stop the boats."

More than 44,000 people have made the dangerous crossing this year, Government figures show.

At least 27 migrants died when a dinghy sank while heading to the UK from France in November last year.

  • WATCH: The flight path of one of the helicopters involved in the rescue operation. Credit: flightradar24

Dover MP Natalie Elphicke said: "I am very saddened to hear that lives are feared to have been lost following a small boat tragedy in the English Channel this morning.

"My thoughts and prayers are with all those involved."

In a post on Twitter, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said: "I am aware of a distressing incident in the Channel this morning and I am being kept constantly updated while agencies respond and urgently establish the full facts.

"My heartfelt thoughts are with all those involved."

Labour Leader, Keir Starmer said: "Heartbreaking that more lives have been lost in the Channel.

"Thanks to the emergency services for everything they do."

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said the deaths in the English Channel showed "debates about asylum seekers are not about statistics, but precious human lives".

He said: "I'm praying for the victims of today's terrible events in the Channel.

"It's another reminder that debates about asylum seekers are not about statistics, but precious human lives.

"May God comfort those who mourn, those who survived and all those who work to save lives at sea."

Natalie Roberts, Executive Director at MSF UK said: "We are distressed to hear reports of a shipwreck in the Channel, where it has been confirmed that at least four people have lost their lives. Our thoughts are with the victims of this disaster, and the emergency services that are working to rescue the survivors. 

"The Government needs to now take urgent measures to ensure tragedies like this do not happen again. 

"This means recognising that a cruel and punitive approach, such as that outlined by the Prime Minister yesterday, will not stop Channel crossings and will simply cause more suffering. As the Home Office’s own research shows, an approach built on deterrence only pushes desperate people into yet more dangerous routes. Men, women and children seeking safety will be forced into make even riskier journeys to get here, causing harm to their health and well-being, and inevitably resulting in more deaths. 

"The horrific incident that occurred in the Channel today was a consequence of a lack of safe routes. The Prime Minister’s proposals would effectively end the right for people fleeing war, persecution and violence to seek asylum in the UK, breaking with the Refugee Convention and shirking our international legal and moral obligations."