LONDON — A small boat carrying migrants capsized in the English Channel early on Wednesday, according to the British maritime authorities, setting off a major rescue operation involving Britain and France.
The condition of the passengers and the status of the boat was not yet known. Lifeboats and helicopters from the British Coast Guard have been involved in evacuating passengers from the scene of the accident, as well as a Royal Navy patrol boat, a French Navy helicopter and a French fishing boat.
There were unconfirmed reports of fatalities after several passengers were thrown into the sea. But the authorities declined to give details on the number of people involved or on the nature of the accident.
Britain’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency said in a statement that it wascoordinating a search and rescue response to an “incident involving a small boat off Kent, working with the Navy, Border Force, Kent Police and other partners.”
Volunteer lifeboats had been dispatched from several locations along the Kent coastline, and the station in Dungeness confirmed that they were still trying to rescue people in the Channel by 9 a.m.
“HM Coastguard helicopters from Lydd and Lee-on-the-Solent and one from the French Navy are involved,” a Coast Guard spokesperson said, adding that a fishing vessel was also aiding in the rescue. “South East Coast Ambulance and Kent Police are working with us and an air ambulance has been sent.”
The accident came a day after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced plans to try to cut down on migrant crossings of the Channel. Mr. Sunak said Britain would seek to clear a huge backlog of asylum applications.
The number of people trying dangerous crossings has swelled in the past year, posing a political problem for the Conservative government. Mr. Sunak put an emphasis on rejecting asylum claims from Albania, which has become one of the leading sources of migrants using the channel route.
“We have to stop the boats and this government will do what must be done,” Mr. Sunak said in a statement to Parliament on Tuesday.
The hazards of those crossings were starkly illustrated when an inflatable dingy carrying 30 people capsized in French territorial waters near Calais and Dunkirk in November 2021. Twenty-seven of the passengers were killed in the accident, the most serious since migrant groups began collecting data.