The ‘floating death trap’ boat which sank in the English Channel with the loss of 27 UK-bound migrants, including a pregnant woman, was hit by a container ship, rescuers fear.
Horrific details of the disaster began to emerge on Thursday, as four people smugglers who are alleged to have organised Wednesday’s fatal crossing were placed in custody facing manslaughter charges.
Just two men escaped from the inflatable craft which mainly contained so far unidentified Iraqi Kurds and Somalians who had paid the equivalent of up to £6,000 each for a passage to England.
Very few of them were wearing life jackets, and most are thought to have succumbed to the extremely cold water.
Seven of them were women, including one expecting a baby, while three children were said to be among those killed.
The survivors – one an Iraqi Kurd and another a Somalian – have indicated a container ship collided with them, causing their boat to deflate, according to rescuers who were first on the scene.
Autopsies will take place in Lille “over the next few days”, said Carole Etienne, the city’s public prosecutor, who is leading a criminal enquiry into the tragedy.
Bernard Barron, president of the SNSM rescue service in Calais, spoke of “group murder” as he described how the “floating death trap” that was meant to contain a maximum of 10 people “was completely deflated when we found it”.
Mr Barron said: “Migrants are forced into the boat, and their feet are in water and fuel. These are unimaginable conditions.
“Often only women and children have life jackets, and these boats don’t have navigation lights or radar receivers.”
Boats becoming ‘more and more overcrowded’
Charles Devos, also one of the first SNSM rescuers to reach the victims, said: “We’ve seen the boats becoming more and more overcrowded.
“The inflatables are only designed for 10 people, but more than 50 have been packed on board, turning them into floating death traps.
“We always thought that, one day or another, they were going to collide with a container ship or a ferry.”
The rescuers believe the boat left Loon-Plage, near Dunkirk, on Wednesday morning and collided with the container ship at the limit of French territorial waters.
The two men “made a miracle escape,” said Mr Devos, but their condition in hospital in Calais was said to be “extremely serious”.
In was the deadliest ever incident of its kind ever, and led to a fisherman sounding the alarm about 2pm.
Those arrested – whose names have not been released – are all men who were stopped as they fled towards the Belgium border on Wednesday night.
They are expected to appear before local magistrates this week for a fast track trial.
All are thought to be part of a criminal gang and they face charges of ‘manslaughter’ and ‘assistance with illegal immigration in an organised gang’.
Hundreds continue to make perilous journey
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 55 migrants reached the UK on Wednesday.
These included about 40 who were allowed into the sea near Boulogne by a French police car with at least two officers inside appearing to do nothing. They landed about 2.45pm in Dungeness.
President Emmanuel Macron said France would not allow the Channel to become a “cemetery”.
Calling for an emergency meeting of European ministers, he said: “It is Europe at its deepest level – humanism, respect for the dignity of each person, that is in mourning following the death of 31 migrants off the coast of Calais.”
French prime minister Jean Castex spoke of a “terrible tragedy,” adding: “My thoughts are with the many missing and wounded, victims of criminal smugglers who exploit their distress and their misery.”
And Natacha Bouchart, the Mayor of Calais, said: “I have been warning for weeks and months that this sort of tragedy was bound to happen.”
She said migrants paid between the equivalent of between £2000 and £6000 to make the crossing, fuelling a “mafia-style” criminal operation that was more profitable than drugs.
“I say that enough is enough,” Ms Bouchart said, as she accused Britain’s lax benefits system of encouraging immigration.
Ms Bouchart said: “The British government has imposed immigration control on our territory for the last 20 years. It has never had the courage to control this immigration back home. You have to react, react quickly to make it all stop.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile accused France of failing to do enough to stop migrants from crossing the Channel.
He said that the gangsters smuggling people across the English Channel were “literally getting away with murder”.
Some 27,000 migrants have crossed the Channel this year – far eclipsing the roughly 8,000 who came in 2020 and 1,000 who arrived in 2019.
More than 4,000 have made the journey in November so-far, the most ever in a single month, and the surge shows no sign of slowing down.Internet Explorer Channel Network