Five migrants die while crossing English Channel from France hours after UK passes Rwanda deportation bill

UK, English Channel, migrants died, UK deportation bill
Image Source : REUTERS People stand on boats near France’s Pas de Calais after five migrants died while crossing the English Channel.

London: Five people, including a child, died in an attempt to cross the English Channel from France on Tuesday, mere hours after the UK Parliament passed a much-delayed bill to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda in a bid to deter the dangerous crossings. The deaths occurred after an overcrowded small boat carrying around 110 people set out to cross one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Several French navy ships, including assistance and rescue tug Abeille Normandie, intervened to rescue the boat as authorities spotted several such vessels, packed with migrants, off the coast of Pas-de-Calais. At least 47 people were rescued but five people, including a seven-year-old girl, could not be saved despite the swift intervention of the emergency services.

“A tragedy occurred on a boat overloaded with migrants early this morning. We deplore the deaths of five people, a seven-year-old girl, a woman and three men,” local prefect Jacques Billant told reporters. “The engine stopped a few hundred meters away from the shore and several people fell into the water.”

According to Biliant, another 57 people stayed on board the boat as they did not want to be rescued, and headed towards Britain. The boat had left from Wimereux, about 32 km (20 miles) southwest of Calais. A British border force boat carrying more than 20 migrants in life jackets was seen off the coast in Dover, southern England, about 32 km from French shores. 

UK Parliament’s Rwanda deportation bill

The incident occurred hours after British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s latest effort to send some migrants to Rwanda finally won approval from the UK Parliament. The legislation, approved on Tuesday, is known as the Safety of Rwanda Bill under which asylum seekers will be deported to Rwanda and prohibited from returning to Britain. Sunak said deportation flights to Rwanda would begin in 10-12 weeks.

“I am clear that nothing will stand in our way of doing that and saving lives,” the British PM said in a statement after the bill was passed in Parliament. “These tragedies have to stop,” Britain’s interior minister James Cleverly said of the latest migrant deaths at sea.

The first deportation flight to Rwanda in June 2022 was blocked by European judges. Britain’s Supreme Court then upheld a ruling that the scheme was unlawful because migrants were at risk of being sent back to their homelands or to other countries where they would be at risk of mistreatment.

What does the bill propose?

The scheme, which was agreed in April 2022 by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson after reaching an agreement with the East African nation, sends anyone who arrived in Britain illegally after Jan. 1, 2022, to Rwanda, some 4,000 miles (6,400 km) away. However, the first deportation flight in June 2022 was blocked by European judges.

The British Supreme Court then upheld a ruling that the scheme was unlawful because migrants were at risk of being sent back to their homelands or to other countries where they would be at risk of mistreatment. To address the apex court’s issues, Sunak agreed on a new treaty with Rwanda that seeks to prevent asylum seekers deported there from being sent anywhere else other than back to Britain.

The UK House of Lords on Tuesday dropped some amendments to the bill after several legal hassles, paving the way for it to become law. Sunak also suggested the government was prepared to ignore the European Court of Human Rights if it sought to block the deportations. “We are ready, plans are in place, and these flights will go come what may,” Sunak said. “No foreign court will stop us from getting flights off.”

Criticism of the bill

However, Sunak’s bid to push the Rwanda deportation bill has provoked widespread criticism, from members of Sunak’s own Conservative Party to the United Nations human rights chief with some describing the plan as inhumane and cruel. Some members of Sunak’s party believe the new law does not go far enough in preventing asylum seekers from being able to appeal against their deportation. 

Both the UN refugee agency and the Council of Europe on Tuesday called for the UK to rethink its plans because of concerns that the legislation undermines human rights protections and fears that it will damage international cooperation on tackling the global migrant crisis. “The new legislation marks a further step away from the UK’s long tradition of providing refuge to those in need, in breach of the Refugee Convention,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement. 

(with inputs from agencies)

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