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Five migrants died trying to cross the English channel on Sunday morning, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces growing criticism over the effectiveness of his plan to ‘stop the boats’.

About 70 people tried to board boats launching from the beach near the French town of Wimereux into ice-cold waters on Sunday morning, according to French officials. Five were found dead and a sixth was taken to hospital in a critical condition.

France’s maritime prefecture said coastguard boats and a helicopter responded roughly 15 minutes after the incident was reported and rescued most of the people.

Foreign secretary Lord David Cameron said the migrant deaths were “heartbreaking”, but underscored the urgent need to “stop the boats”.

He told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that “in an ideal world” the UK would send asylum seekers “straight back to France” but as that is not possible, the government is pursuing what “may be an unorthodox and unusual” policy of sending them to Rwanda.

“It’s about dealing with illegal migration, it’s about saving lives,” he said.

However Jonathan Jones, former Treasury solicitor and permanent secretary at the Government Legal Department, said he believed there would be “lots of [legal] challenges” to the government’s Rwanda plan, which is the centrepiece of Sunak’s plan to ‘stop the boats’.

“I think it’s quite likely that no one will be on a plane before an election,” he told the BBC’s Westminster Hour.

After a hiatus in channel crossings since last month due to poor weather, 124 people arrived on three boats on Saturday, according to Home Office data. The deaths on Sunday morning were the first since December 15. 

“We cannot imagine the level of pain and suffering created by these situations,” said Nikolaï Posner, a spokesperson for Utopia 56, a charity working with migrants in Calais. He accused politicians of failing to “build solutions” that would prevent migrant deaths.

The news comes ahead of a debate on the Conservative government’s bill to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for their applications to be processed.

Several attempts to send migrants to Kigali have been blocked by court challenges. In November the Supreme Court ruled the government’s Rwanda plan was unlawful because there was a real threat that they could be sent back to their country of origin, where their lives could be in danger.

Sunak’s government responded by drafting legislation that categorically states Rwanda is a “safe” country and disapplies parts of UK human rights laws. 

Ministers have been engaged in talks with backbenchers over the past week to try to stave off revolt over the bill.

Rightwing factions of the party believe it does not go far enough to block interventions from European courts, or prevent migrants from mounting independent challenges. 

Dozens of MPs on the right flank of the party have tabled a number of amendments to the bill, which they argue will close the loopholes that leave the removal of migrants open to challenge. 

Members of the more moderate One Nation group have responded by drafting their own amendments that would water down provisions that disapply the Human Rights Act and block interim injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights.

More than 30,000 people crossed the channel in small boats in 2023, a drop of a third compared with the year before. In late 2021, 27 people died in a single night trying to make the dangerous journey.

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