Four people died and more than 40 were rescued after a desperate call to a charity warned that a boat carrying asylum seekers including children had capsized in the Channel on Wednesday morning.
An unidentified man on the sinking vessel, in a recording obtained by the Guardian, asked at 2.53am for the alarm to be raised to save his family who were in the icy waters.
“Please help me bro, please, please, please. We are in the water and we have a family,” he said.
Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, expressed his “sorrow” at the “capsizing of a small boat”, telling MPs there had been a “tragic loss of human life”. His home secretary, Suella Braverman, insisted that the government will push ahead with policies which aim to deter people from seeking asylum in the UK.
The alarm was raised with the UK and French authorities at 2.59am by the French NGO Utopia 56 which received the desperate call.
Cries can be heard in the background of the 22-second recording as the man said: “Hello brother. We are in a boat and we have a problem. We have children and a family in a boat. Water is coming in but we don’t have anything for it, for feeling safety.”
Separately, a fisher who was at sea has described being woken before 3am by people screaming for help.
The skipper of the fishing boat, known as Raymond, told Sky News that his crew spent two hours pulling 31 people from the freezing water. Those rescued included people from Iraq, Afghanistan, India and Senegal, he said.
“One guy was hanging off my wire. I thought at first it was just him, and once I got my fishing gear up – which took about three minutes – I stopped my boat and ran outside and along the port side there were five of them hanging off the side of my boat,” he said.
The search and rescue operation that followed rescued another 12 people, sources confirmed.
After the first five people were pulled aboard, others began swimming towards his boat. “It was like something out of a second world war movie; there were people in the water everywhere, screaming,” Raymond said.
“The dinghy started to drift away, so I steamed towards the dinghy and we secured it with a rope to the side of the boat. We were trying to pull them off the dinghy.”
Those rescued told the fishers they had paid £5,000 to get in the flimsy boat. Some can be seen in footage wearing T-shirts.
The Royal Navy, French navy, coastguard and RNLI lifeboats were all involved in a major rescue operation. RNLI lifeboats were launched from Dover at 3.07am, followed by more from Ramsgate and Hastings.
A “recovery operation” for further drowned bodies continued after nightfall involving multiple lifeboats, coastguard and Royal Naval vessels. It was expected to continue until around 9pm in the evening, sources involved in the rescue said. It was believed that a small number were missing and unaccounted for from a crammed boat that had about 50 people on board before it ran into difficulties off Dungeness.
Two died after protracted attempts to revive them on the English coast failed in the early morning, a third was admitted to William Harvey hospital in Ashford but passed away subsequently. A fourth person was brought in to the Dover lifeboat station in a bodybag. A fifth person was taken to the same hospital for treatment, and was expected to recover and be discharged.
A government spokesperson said: “At 03.05 today, authorities were alerted to an incident in the Channel concerning a migrant small boat in distress. After a coordinated search and rescue operation led by HM Coastguard, it is with regret that there have been four confirmed deaths as a result of this incident.”
Human rights groups have blamed the government’s “hostile” refugee policies for the deaths. In a statement, charity Refugee Action said the deaths were “predictable and avoidable”, and “caused by hostile government policies”.
Chief executive Tim Naor Hilton said: “This is heartbreaking and our thoughts go out to the loved ones of people who have died and to refugees everywhere for whom this will be re-traumatising.
“Let’s be clear, today’s tragedy and those on previous days are predictable and inevitable, and caused by hostile government policies – such as those announced yesterday by the prime minister – which are designed to keep people out, and not keep people safe.”
In the Commons, Sunak said: “I’m sure the whole House will share my sorrow at the capsizing of a small boat in the Channel in the early hours of this morning.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “Our prayers go out to those who capsized in the freezing waters of the Channel last night. It’s a reminder that the criminal gangs running those routes put the lives of the desperate at risk and profit from their misery.”