RNLI volunteers from Sussex and Kent faced a “harrowing” situation as they worked to save passengers on a small inflatable boat crossing the Channel.

All-weather lifeboat crews and inshore lifeboat crews from Hastings, Dungeness, Ramsgate, Walmer and Dover formed part of an operation to rescue people from the water after the craft got into difficulties.

Four people lost their lives when the boat capsized off the Kent coast in the early hours of Wednesday, with one understood to be a teenager.

A spokesman for the RNLI said: “Crews were faced with the harrowing situation of a number of people distressed and in the water.

“Volunteers carried out the rescue of a number of people and returned them to Dover before subsequently re-tasking to search for more casualties.

“Searches continued throughout the night, all forming part of the operation with the other emergency services and search and rescue assets under the coordination and control of the coastguard.

“We are grateful beyond words for the selfless dedication of our volunteers. However, this is a stark reminder of how dangerous this stretch of water can be.”

The search for people missing from the migrant boat was called off late last night.

Kent County Council leader Roger Gough told a council meeting that 12 of the 39 people rescued from the freezing water were lone migrant children who have now been taken into the authority’s care.

The major rescue operation began at 2.16am on Wednesday after reports of a boat in distress and involved the Royal Navy, the French navy, the coastguard, RNLI lifeboats, the ambulance service and the police.

A fishing boat was first on the scene and was one of three to help in the rescue.

Simon Ling, the RNLI’s head of lifeboats, described the scenes faced by lifeboat crews as “harrowing”.

He said: “The crews arrived to quite a distressing and harrowing situation with persons in the water in varying levels of distress”.

Mr Ling also said that the incident was “hugely traumatic” for all involved, with lifeboat crews working to get people “out of the water as quickly as possible” and “deal with various states including being very cold and hypothermic”.