Four people, including two children aged five and eight, have died attempting to reach Britain by boat across the English Channel off the coast of northern France, authorities has confirmed.
The four, believed to be from Iran, have died after being exposed to the cold water. Fifteen others have been taken to hospital.
A large search and rescue operation began earlier after the vessel was seen in difficulty near Dunkirk.
The stricken vessel was spotted about 2km off the French coast by a passing sailboat at about 09:30 local time, which alerted French authorities.
Four French vessels, one Belgian helicopter and a French fishing boat took part in the rescue and a search operation for people in the water has been on-going for hours.
Conditions in the English Channel have been rough throughout the day, with a gale warning issued overnight by the Met Office.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his thoughts were with the victims’ loved ones.
He said: “We have offered the French authorities every support as they investigate this terrible incident, and will do all we can to crack down on the ruthless criminal gangs who prey on vulnerable people by facilitating these dangerous journeys.”
An investigation has been opened by the public prosecutor in Dunkirk to try to identify the cause of the sinking.
Labour MP Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, said the deaths were “truly awful”, and that criminals were profiting from “other people’s desperation”.
The committee is looking at the rise in Channel crossings and “the work that is urgently needed to prevent more lives being lost”, she said.
Dover MP Natalie Elphicke said it was “terrible that tragedy has struck in the Channel again”, adding: “People traffickers have no regard for life, no matter how old or young.”
The UK government has vowed to make the crossings “unviable” and called for boats to be stopped at sea and returned to France.
The UN Refugee Agency said in August it was “troubled” by the plans to intercept and return boats, adding that the numbers making the crossing “remain low and manageable”.
Charity Care4Calais said the “loss of life should be a wake-up call for those in power in France and the UK”.
It said creating a new system which would allow asylum-seekers to apply for refuge in the UK from outside its borders would “put an end to terrifying, dangerous sea crossings and stop tragedy striking again”.
Save The Children added: “Today’s tragic news must be a wake-up call for both London and Paris to come up with a joint plan that ensures the safety of vulnerable children and families.
“The English Channel must not become a graveyard for children.”
More than 7,400 migrants have reached the UK in small boats this year, up from 1,825 in 2019. (Source: BBC)