At least three people have died after a small migrant boat with up to 50 on board capsized in the English Channel off the coast of Kent, near Dungeness.

A major search and rescue operation involving helicopters and lifeboats is ongoing and 43 people have been rescued alive – some from the water, others from the vessel.

The boat was carrying between 30 to 50 people when it ran into difficulties, according to a French source.

Searches will continue all day, but at this stage many more are feared dead given the freezing conditions of the water, a separate source has told Sky News.

Channel incident – latest updates: People dead as helicopters and lifeboats scrambled to rescue vessel

“There were people in the water,” says Sky’s Lisa Holland, adding sources have told her they believe the temperature would have been around -4C.

While temperatures had dropped last night, Holland says the weather conditions were calm – making it a “window of opportunity” for the migrants to make the crossing.

Helicopters have been landing at a hospital in Ashford, Kent, she adds. It is unclear whether they have been transporting people rescued from the water.

Temperatures have plunged below zero every night this week.

British Red Cross director of refugee support Alex Fraser said anyone making the journey in these circumstances “shows just how desperate people are”.

“Nobody puts their life at risk like this unless they feel they have no other option, and until we have more accessible safe routes for people to claim asylum, there is a danger we may see more such incidents,” he said.

“Our thoughts are with those on the boat, their families and those involved in the ongoing rescue mission.”

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said HM Coastguard is working with the RNLI, Royal Navy, Border Force, French navy and Kent Police to look for the boat, while an air ambulance has also been sent to the scene.

Coastguard rescue teams from Deal, Dungeness and Folkestone are involved in the operation, along with helicopters from Lydd and Lee on Solent, and another from the French navy is also taking part.

Two French vessels and a fishing boat in the area are also helping with the rescue.

A UK government spokesperson said: “We are aware of an incident in UK waters and all relevant agencies are supporting a co-ordinated response. Further details will be provided in due course.”

Home Secretary Suella Braverman tweeted that she is “aware of a distressing incident” in the Channel this morning and is “being kept constantly updated” while agencies respond and “urgently establish the full facts”.

“My heartfelt thoughts are with all those involved,” she added.

Dover MP Natalie Elphicke said: “I am very saddened to hear that lives are feared to have been lost following a small boat tragedy in the English Channel this morning. My thoughts and prayers are with all those involved.”

The incident comes just hours after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised to bring in new laws to tackle illegal immigration.

Among a raft of new measures unveiled to curb Channel crossings, he told MPs: “We have to stop the boats. And this government will do what must be done.”

As of midnight last night, 44,711 people had crossed the Channel on board small boats in 2022, according to data analysed by Sky News. This includes 1,087 boats, with an average of 41 people per vessel.

In 2021, there were 28,526 arrivals.

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