At least six people have died after a migrant boat crossing the English Channel capsized early this morning.
Dozens more people have been rescued, with some casualties being brought off a lifeboat in Dover on stretchers.
French authorities say a rescue operation is underway in the Channel following the incident at about 4am today.
The operation off the Cap Gris Nez in northern France is reported to involve seven ships and a helicopter, including two British ships.
The RNLI said a Dover volunteer lifeboat crew launched just before 4am to an incident in the Channel.
Two British ships and several French vessels have been involved in a search and rescue operation, a statement from France’s Maritime Prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea said.
Early this morning, information was received from a patrol boat that a migrant boat was sinking off Sangatte, the statement said.
Six people were recovered in a serious condition and taken by helicopter to Calais hospital, where they were later declared dead.
Dover MP Natalie Elphicke said the tragedy underlined the need for action to stop the small boat crossings.
Writing on X, formerly known as Twitter, she said: “We must stop the small boats to keep people safe and prevent loss of life.
“These overcrowded and unseaworthy deathtraps should obviously be stopped by the French authorities from leaving the French coast in the first place. The time has come for joint patrols on the French coast and a cross-Channel security zone before any more lives are lost.”
But Kent’s only Labour MP, Canterbury’s Rosie Duffield tweeted: “Yet another tragedy. None of these individuals would be risking their lives, or paying those profiting from their desperation, if they believed they had another choice - and no, France is not always an option for many reasons - a choice none of the nasty commenters will ever face.”
It is understood Home Secretary Suella Braverman will chair a meeting with Border Force officials later.
A UK government spokesperson said: “We are aware of an incident in the Channel. HM Coastguard are working on a co-ordinated response and further information will be provided in due course.”
“This terrible loss of life demonstrates yet again the need for a system of safe passage to the UK for refugees...”
An investigation has also been opened by the Boulogne prosecutor’s office.
So far this year, more than 15,826 people have crossed the Channel into Kent in small boats.
It comes after 755 people crossed the English Channel in small boats on Thursday, the highest daily number so far this year, confirming the total since 2018 has passed 100,000.
Campaigners branded the deaths an “appalling and preventable tragedy”.
The Refugee Council urged the government to respond with “compassion” to the incident while Freedom from Torture accused ministers of “hostile” attitudes towards refugee protection.
Steve Smith, chief executive of refugee charity Care4Calais, said: “This morning’s accident in the English Channel, in which six refugees are reported to have died, was an appalling and preventable tragedy.
“Those who died were not just statistics, but individual people: someone’s children, someone’s siblings, and possibly someone’s parents. We send our deepest sympathies to their friends and families.
“This terrible loss of life demonstrates yet again the need for a system of safe passage to the UK for refugees.
“This would enable them to apply for asylum while in France, and then to travel safely to the UK without risking their lives in small boats.
“It would put the people smugglers out of business overnight.”
Kolbassia Haoussou, from Freedom from Torture, said: “The tragic news of yet more deaths in the Channel, including serious injuries to many others, demonstrates the continued failure of the UK government’s hostile approach to refugee protection.
“The UK government has used the demonisation of refugees as a tactic to distract us from their failings, which have left us with a cost-of-living crisis, the NHS on its knees, and public sector strikes.
“If this government fails to humanely address this issue, then innocent lives will continue to be lost.”