Four people, including two children, have died after a migrant boat sank off the coast of France, authorities have confirmed.
The children were aged five and eight years old.
Eighteen people have been taken to hospitals in Calais and Dunkirk, according to a statement by the Maritime Prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea.
The statement said a widespread search and rescue operation is looking for other passengers.
“The boat carrying the migrants sank. An investigation was opened by the public prosecutor of Dunkirk to identify the causes of this sinking,” the statement read.
A sailboat raised the alarm after it spotted the vessel – which was travelling in wind gusts of up to 18mph – in difficulty near Dunkirk.
Customs and Navy patrol boats from France and Belgium went to the area, along with a lifeboat and fishing vessel.
It is believed there were about 20 people on the boat, who were trying to get to the UK.
In a statement, Home Secretary Priti Patel said she is “truly saddened to learn of the tragic loss of life in French waters this morning” and that her thoughts and prayers are with the victim’s loved ones.
“We are in touch with our French counterparts who are leading on the response and have offered whatever support they need as they investigate this incident,” she said.
“This tragic news highlights the dangers that come with crossing the channel and I will do everything I can to stop callous criminals exploiting vulnerable people.”
Care4Calais founder Clare Moseley said the refugee community in Calais is “utterly devastated”.
She said: “We are grieving for the victims, we stand in sympathy and solidarity with their families and friends.
“It is cruel and horrifying that this time, young children are among the victims.
“This unnecessary loss of life has to stop. No one should ever feel they have to get into a fragile craft and risk their lives crossing the Channel, least of all vulnerable children.”
In the past year, more than 7,000 migrants have made it across the English Channel to the UK – up from 1,800 the previous year.
According to the prefecture, four people died making the journey in 2019 and four so far this year.
Sky’s Home Affairs Correspondent Mark White said the issue is significant for France and the UK.
“The British Government has been warning for some time about the potential for a significant tragedy,” he said.
“Home Secretary Priti Patel says she has met with her French counterpart on number of occasions and has made clear she wants France to do more,” he said.
“It appears we are certainly witnessing a tragedy that is unfolding today.”