UK’s Sunak blames ‘criminal gangs’ for Channel migrant deaths

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UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak blames the “criminal gangs” facilitating small boat Channel crossings for the “horrific” weekend deaths of at least six migrants, his spokesman said Monday.

Six Afghan men died and dozens more required rescuing after a small vessel bound for the southeast English coast from France sank in the Channel in the early hours of Saturday.

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“The blame for the tragedy we’ve seen in the Channel in recent days lies squarely in the hands of criminal gangs who are exploiting people’s lives for profit,” Sunak’s spokesman told reporters.

“This is a horrific tragedy and his thoughts first and foremost are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives,” he added.

“It’s a stark reminder of how dangerous these crossings are and how vitally important it is to disrupt these criminal gangs, and it is right the government acts urgently and takes all possible steps to close down this route.”

Sunak’s government has faced strong criticism from migrants’ rights groups for its policies towards the small boats, after recently barring arrivals from claiming asylum and pursuing plans to deport them immediately to Rwanda.

Both plans are on-hold pending a court challenge to sending the migrants to east Africa.

They have also been criticised for planning to house up to 500 migrants in a barge off the coast of southwest England, and others at similar sites in future.

The first few dozen migrants were placed on the “Bibby Stockholm” last week, but in an embarrassing setback had to be removed within days after Legionella bacteria was found in the water on board.

However, Sunak’s spokesman insisted the government’s policies aimed at deterring small boats was working, pointing to fewer arrivals so far this year compared to at the same stage in 2022.

He said a deal struck between Britain and France in March, which sees London send Paris hundreds of millions of euros annually to step up patrols and other deterrent measures, was effective.

“Obviously we think there’s more to do on both sides but it’s true that since we improved and enhanced our relationship with France we have seen more people who would wish to make those crossings being intercepted and that’s a positive step,” the spokesman added.

More than 100,000 migrants have crossed the Channel on small boats from France to southeast England since Britain began publicly recording the arrivals in 2018, official figures revealed last Friday.

The route across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes has repeatedly proved perilous, with numerous previous capsizes and scores of migrants drowning in the waters over the last decade.

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