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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Lisa O'Carroll in Brussels

Seven-year-old girl dies after makeshift boat heading to UK capsizes in France

French gendarmes patrolling the beaches of the northern French coast.
French gendarmes patrolling the beaches of the northern French coast. Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images

A seven-year-old girl has died in a canal close to Dunkirk after a makeshift boat carrying 16 people from northern France to the UK capsized, the prefecture in France’s Nord department said.

The boat, which was carrying 10 other children between seven and 13 years old along with the girl’s pregnant mother, her father and three of her siblings, sank with all onboard entering the water.

Emergency services, who were alerted to the incident around 7.30am on Sunday morning, said they could not resuscitate the little girl.

The location of the incident is 16 miles (26km) inland from where the boat would have emerged at the coast, raising fresh questions about the efforts the criminal smugglers use to avoid detection.

“This is the first time that we have collected migrants after a shipwreck,” said Daniel Deschodt, the mayor of Watten, the town close to where the accident took place.

“The phenomenon is new. We already had a departure on the canal about a month ago but that’s it. They try to leave from much further [away] than the coast because it is saturated. They are starting from inland now,” he told the Voix du Nord newspaper.

The death is the sixth known to have occurred in 2024 as a result of people-smuggling on the Channel.

Five people died in French waters in January after attempting to board a small boat near the seaside resort of Wimereux, with more than 70 rescued in subzero temperatures.

The EU and the UK have pledged to work more closely together to try to combat the criminal gangs, which Europol recently said were dominated by Iraqi Kurds operating out of Germany with complex logistics involving boats imported from China, transported to Belgium and kept in safe houses until enough people are recruited for the treacherous journey.

French, Belgian and German police forces broke up one of the most significant gangs operating in Calais 10 days ago with the arrest of 19 people including five of the ring’s leadership based in Germany.

Home affairs ministers will meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss the latest legislation on migration, among other topics.

A report out last week by the NGO Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime said: “Efforts by the UK and France to raise the barriers to migration will most likely have the effect of tightening the grip of those ‘ruthless organised criminals’ [Rishi] Sunak refers to, and not breaking it.”

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