Published: 16:12, 24 November 2021
| Updated: 20:29, 24 November 2021
More than 30 people including five women and a child have drowned as they attempted to reach the UK in the worst-ever Channel crossings tragedy.
Motionless asylum seekers were plucked from the icy water after an inflatable dinghy capsized off Calais, with as many as 50 reported to be on board at the time.
Of those several were unconscious and more than 30 were dead.
The bodies of asylum seekers, including five women and a young girl, are being brought ashore as a search and rescue operation continues with British and French vessels being assisted by three helicopters.
Two people are said to have been saved from the water, and remain in intensive care.
Meanwhile four suspected people smugglers thought to be linked to the tragedy were arrested in Calais.
Earlier, in an unrelated case, 18 arrests had been made across France in an international operation to smash trafficking rings. So far this year 1,500 have been arrested.
Fishermen raised the alarm at around 2pm after spotting two boats in trouble, one of which had capsized.
French maritime minister Annick Girardin said five people were still missing.
The French coast guard was called to assist a boat with engine difficulty at 5am today, according to local media, but the vessel continued regardless. It is not clear if this was the dinghy that capsize.
Bodies have been taken to Paul-Devot quayside where around 20 emergency vehicles were waiting.
Franck Dhersin, deputy head of regional transport and mayor of Teteghem, said the death toll is expected to rise still further.
France's interior minister Gerald Darmanin says more than 30 have died in the Channel, including a little girl and five women. Two people have been saved.
At a press conference in Calais this evening, he told reporters: "Two people were saved heroically by the national marine but their lives are in danger - they've got hypothermia.
"I don't think there's possibility of finding other survivors. Of course the national marine is still carrying out its work."
Mr Darmanin said one person remains missing.
He described the dinghy found at the scene as "frail", and that all the casualties may have been travelling on the same craft.
"It was like a pool that you'd blow up in your garden," he said.
Boris Johnson is to hold an emergency meeting of COBRA following the tragedy.
He said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened" and that efforts to stop boats "clearly had not been enough".
He added that people smugglers were getting away with murder.
He urged France to step up efforts, saying: "What this shows is that the gangs who are sending people to sea in these dangerous craft will literally stop at nothing.
"But what I'm afraid it also shows is that the operation that is being conducted by our friends on the beaches, supported as you know with £54million from the UK to help patrol the beaches, the technical support we've been giving, they haven't been enough.
"Our offer is to increase our support but also to work together with our partners on the beaches concerned, on the launching grounds for these boats. That's something I hope will be acceptable now in view of what has happened."
He said he had full confidence in Home Secretary Priti Patel.
But mayor of Calais Natacha Bouchart said: "This is the fault of Boris Johnson who is forcing our country to endure this set-up because he doesn't have the courage himself to assume responsibilities in his country."
Calais' MP Pierre-Henri Dumont told Sky News: "My message to the French authorities, which I said to them a few minutes ago, is that we need to understand that if the migrant is in Calais - or around the Channel - they will try to cross the Channel.
"We need to move them, even if by force, to health centres in the middle of France.
"We all need, both sides of the Channel, to stop making migrants an internal argument with internal policies and try to figure out how to find a solution.
"The Channel right now is becoming the new Mediterranean Sea, it's like an open sky graveyard.
"We must find a way to end it."
The shipwreck was one of several crossings made today, with conditions in the Channel described as cool and calm.
French interior minister Gerald Darmanin added: "Strong emotion in front of the drama of the many deaths due to the capsizing of a migrant boat in the English Channel. We cannot say enough about the criminal nature of the smugglers who organize these crossings."
Dover MP Natalie Elphicke described the news as an "absolute tragedy" and said it demonstrated why stopping gangs sending boats on the perilous trip was crucial.
She said: "As winter is approaching the seas will get rougher, the water colder, the risk of even more lives tragically being lost greater.
"That's why stopping these dangerous crossings is the humanitarian and right thing to do.
She added: "Lives are being put at risk by the people smugglers.
"And people are safe in France and they need to be kept safe in France."
Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe Damian Collins said the deaths of at least 30 people in the Channel were an "avoidable tragedy".
French interior minister Gérald Darmanin will visit the Calais hospital upon arrival at 7pm local time and hold a press conference.
French President Emmanuel Macron said: "It is Europe at its deepest level - humanism, respect for the dignity of each person, that is in mourning tonight following the death of 31 migrants off the coast of Calais."
He added that he would not allow the Channel to become a "cemetery".
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he was "heart broken".
The Channel is the busiest fishing lane in the world and despite repeat vows from the UK and French governments to stop people risking their lives to cross numbers have surged and now stand at more than 25,700 in 2021, triple 2020's total.
Asylum seekers have died in the past trying to reach the UK and today's death toll surpasses the tragic death of a family, including two children and a baby, last October.