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Four confirmed dead after migrant boat incident in the Channel

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Four people have died off the Kent coast after attempting to cross the Channel in an inflatable boat early on Wednesday morning, just over a year after a similar tragedy claimed 27 lives.

Confirming the deaths to parliament, Suella Braverman, the home secretary, said a multi-agency rescue operation was under way involving the coastguard, the RNLI, police and border force, and the ministry of defence together with a French vessel.

Several more people were fighting for their lives in east Kent hospitals near England’s south coast after being rescued, said Roger Gale, the MP for North Thanet. The skipper of a scallop fishing vessel that was first on the scene, just after 3am, said his crew had hauled 31 people from the icy water.

The incident comes just one day after UK prime minister Rishi Sunak outlined a new strategy, aimed at addressing a huge backlog in the asylum system and curbing the record numbers of small boat crossings. Tackling the problem has risen up the priority list for voters, polling suggests.

“These are the days that we dread. Crossing the channel in unseaworthy vessels is a lethally dangerous endeavour. It is for this reason above all that we are working so hard to destroy the business model of the people smugglers,” said Braverman.

She added: “This morning’s tragedy, like the loss of 27 people on one November day last year, is the most sobering reminder possible of why we have to end these crossings.”

Despite government initiatives aimed at deterring people from making the journey, more than 40,000 have made the crossing so far this year, according to the Ministry of Defence — the highest number since records were initiated in 2018.

Braverman came under fire from both inside and outside parliament for making little headway on the issue and for failing to provide safe and legal alternatives for asylum seekers to reach the UK.

Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, said the brutal truth was that far from curtailing the activities of people smugglers, the French and British authorities had presided over the their “proliferation” across the Channel.

Pressure on the government following Wednesday’s tragedy was also coming from its own backbenchers.

“This boat didn’t magically appear on the median line. It was launched from a French beach — a safe country. It feels like Groundhog Day. A little over a year ago we were having a similar debate following an even worse tragedy,” said Craig Mackinlay, Conservative MP for South Thanet, speaking about Wednesday’s incident.

The home secretary said that 31,000 crossings had been prevented this year from France, and 500 people arrested in connection with people smuggling. She said a new agreement with the French last month was a “big step forward”, with more French patrols of the coastline and improved intelligence sharing.

Braverman also drew attention to the new small boats command centre, announced by the prime minister on Tuesday, which will co-ordinate policing of the Channel. She said funding for the National Crime Agency would be doubled with a further 700 staff dedicated to pursuing people-smuggling gangs.

Campaign groups and charities have been calling on the government to open up safer routes for asylum seekers and to learn lessons from previous tragedies, including an incident in November 2021 in which at least 27 people died when their rubber dinghy capsized during an attempt to cross the Channel.

“The UK government has prioritised ineffective deterrence at the expense of humane, compassionate and effective options for those who need our protection, and last night’s victims have paid for it with their lives,” said Laura Kyrke-Smith, UK executive director of the International Rescue Committee aid group.

Braverman said 450,000 people had been given sanctuary in the UK since 2015, about 300,000 of them this year, mostly under bespoke schemes for Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong.

The government would consider opening up further legal routes to settlement in concert with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and under a “capped quota” scheme, said Braverman.

“We will extend safe and legal routes once we have dealt with the appalling people-smuggling gangs risking people’s lives as we have seen this morning,” she added.

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