Girl, 7, among five dead on Channel migrant boat

Five people, including a seven-year-old girl, have died while trying to cross the English Channel in the early hours of Tuesday, French officials have said.

They said the victims were trying to get to the UK on an overloaded boat carrying 112 migrants.

Authorities said the boat ran aground on a sandbank after leaving Wimereux, near Boulogne, before continuing on.

One local volunteer told reporters that the deceased child's father had seen "his little girl die before his eyes".

Dany Patoux, a volunteer with the Boulogne-based migrant charity Osmose 62, told French radio network Franceinfo the child was a young girl who he "knew well".

"We have photos with her, with a big smile in the hope of a better life," she said.

Ms Patoux added that she had seen the father of the child crying after the tragedy, noting that he "fell into our arms" once he reached the shore.

Several search-and-rescue operations are under way to find other survivors who may have fallen into the water, officials said.

The prefect of Pas-de-Calais, where Wimereux is located, said the boat set sail from the Plage des Allemands with "an unprecedented 112 people on board".

The "heavily laden boat" then "appeared to be in difficulty a few hundred metres from the beach after passing a sandbank", the French maritime prefecture said in a statement. "Its engine stopped and two people fell into the water near the boat."

Upon seeing the boat in distress, prefect Jacques Billant said the Abeille Normandie patrol boat was immediately deployed to rescue those who had set off on the boat. When they arrived, several people were "unconscious and in great difficulty".

Six people were taken aboard the patrol boat, before being taken to the beach to be treated by emergency services.

"Despite resuscitation attempts, five of them died," Mr Billant said.

Another 47 people were rescued from the boat by French authorities, according to Mr Billant, but a further 57 remained on board as they did not wish to be rescued.

"They managed to get the engine running again and decided to continue their journey to the UK under naval supervision."

The UK's Border Force said it had brought about 70 migrants, believed to be from the stricken boat, to shore on Tuesday. It added that more people were on board a vessel heading for Dover.

Guirec Le Bras, the Boulogne-sur-mer prosecutor, told the BBC the boat had become overloaded after a number of migrants forced themselves on board just prior to departure.

"At the time of departure, between 40 and 50 migrants reportedly came out of the woods and forced themselves onto the boat, crushing many people already on board," Mr Le Bras said.

The BBC's Andrew Harding witnessed the inflatable boat leaving the shore in the early hours of Tuesday. He described clashes between police officers and migrants as people attempted to board the boat.

Once the migrants boarded, however, he said the police made no further attempt to stop them. One man who had not managed to find a space on the boat was arrested, with an officer suggesting he might have supplied the boat to the migrants.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the "tragic" incident underscored the need "prevent people making these very dangerous crossings".

On Monday night, the UK Parliament passed Mr Sunak's flagship Rwanda Bill, after months of wrangling. The law aims to send migrants arriving on small boats to have their asylum claims processed in Rwanda, which the UK government says will deter people-smugglers.

The prime minister told reporters during a trip to Warsaw to meet Nato leaders that the tragedy "underscores why you need a deterrent very simply", adding that people needed "to know that if they try and come here illegally they won't be able to stay, they'll be returned either to their own country or Rwanda".

Mr Sunak added that he blamed criminal gangs for exploiting people by sending them on these dangerous journeys, and said their business model must be broken "for matters of compassion more than anything else".

Local French media reported that dozens of boats left at around 03:00 local time (01:00 GMT) on Tuesday when weather conditions were favourable and the sea was calm.

As of 21 April this year, 6,265 people had crossed the English Channel in small boats since the start of 2024 - almost a quarter more when compared with the same period last year.

Last year, 29,437 people arrived in the UK in small boats.

Map showing approximate location of migrant boat rescue