When the lifeboat reached the dinghy shortly after 3 p.m. Wednesday, it was a crumpled mass of gray rubber, barely swollen and barely afloat. And surrounded, in the cold and dark water of the English Channel, by bodies already lifeless.
Two helicopters hovered loudly overhead as Charles Devos, at the helm of a volunteer-led rescue vessel, spotted the shape floating in the water. “I just saw him there, pretty much completely deflated,” he said.
“We took out six floaters. I had a wife, a pregnant wife. A youngster, maybe 18 years old. Of those I hauled out of the water, not all were wearing life jackets. With water at this temperature, hypothermia sets in quickly.
Like many of the 31,500 refugees and migrants so far this year who fearfully boarded small boats on French beaches and set sail for Britain, a perilous 30 miles from one of the sea lanes the busiest in the world, the 27 who died on Wednesday probably had less than an hour’s notice they would leave.
While the number of crossing attempts has more than doubled in the last three months, without taking into account the autumn cold and the water temperatures now at 12-13C, the criminal networks that organize them are giving less and less ‘warnings to their customers.
Partly to take advantage of the weather lulls and part to dodge police patrols, the gangs wait until the last possible moment, picking up people in one of the muddy and unsanitary makeshift encampments – a handful of tattered tents, abandoned shopping carts , inconsolable men suffocated by the cold – behind the dunes sometimes a few minutes before boarding.
Depending on the type of network and the type of business they have concluded, passengers will have paid between € 1,000 and € 2,000 for a one-way ticket, without reimbursement if they are rescued at sea or if the boat has to turn back, or up to € 10,000 for several attempts, with an alleged guarantee of success.
Their smuggler is more and more likely to have been part of a highly professional network. French police said one of those gangs dismantled this week was carrying up to 250 people a month across the English Channel, charging up to € 6,000 per person for multi-trip packages and pocketing more than 3 million. euros.
Fifteen men, including Iraqis, Romanians, Pakistanis and Vietnamese, were arrested and € 40,000 in cash were seized after a year-long investigation. Their inflatables, specially ordered in China to hold up to 60 people without any safety concerns, were imported to Europe via Turkey and collected from an address in Germany.
“It was a network of hardened criminals who operated at the end on an almost industrial scale,” said Xavier Delrieu, the officer in charge of the investigation. Delrieu told local media the gang was aided by “drivers, bankers, people alerting them to police signals – a whole network.”
The crossings took place mostly under cover of darkness, in flotillas of four rubber dinghies traveling together, most of the passengers being picked up from one of the many small encampments scattered around Grande-Synthe, about 4 miles to the l west of Dunkirk. A larger camp in the same area, near an Auchan hypermarket and housing perhaps 1,000 people, was demolished last week on the orders of French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin after the number of people sleeping in the street along the 30-mile stretch of coast between Dunkirk and Calais had tripled in three months, to 2,000.
“There have been a lot of successful crossings this summer, and it has attracted more people here,” said a Calais official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It is very difficult to prevent them. The police stop more now, but there are too many people, the coast is too long and the traffickers are getting very professional.
It was from the dark, windswept sweep of Loon-Plage, just west of Grande-Synthe, that Wednesday’s fatal crossing – described by the International Organization for Migration as the greatest loss of lives in the Channel since she started keeping records in 2014 – it is believed to be gone.
Carrying at least 30 people – 19 men, two of whom survived, seven women and three teenagers, most of them from Iraqi Kurdistan – the fragile tire had to leave in the early afternoon, in what rescuers said was a light wind and relatively calm seas. It is unlikely that anyone will ever know exactly what happened next.
According to Bernard Barron, the head of the volunteer lifeboat service in the Calais region, several scenarios were possible. “The English Channel is essentially a sea highway,” said Barron. “More than 300 boats cross it every day. And some of these boats are very, very big. Giant container ships, supertankers.
The smugglers’ boats do not carry radar, beacons, lights, or safety equipment. Under an overcast sky against slate gray water, they are almost invisible. “And when a small inflatable boat like this crosses the wake of a giant container ship, the waves can reach 2 meters high,” said Barron.
“You can imagine what it must be like for people in a boat as low in the water as this. A tsunami. So that’s a guess. A direct collision is possible. A fatal construction defect is possible, because these boats are very light and made especially, at low cost, for smugglers.
The first cry of alarm, from the captain of a fishing boat who had spotted bodies in the water, was received by the maritime surveillance and rescue center at Cap Gris-Nez, 15 miles to the west from Calais, at 2:50 p.m. Search and rescue helicopters were dispatched and all local rescue boat services were alerted.
“The Calais boat was in the water within 15 minutes as required,” said Barron. “All the lifeboats on the coast – Berck, Boulogne, Calais, Gravelines, Dunkirk – were already on standby; we expected crossing attempts. Unfortunately for us, we were the first crew on site. The first to remove the bodies.
Barron said he and his colleagues along the coast were “at sea pretty much every day at the moment. Earlier yesterday, two inflatable boats sank off Le Touquet. The sea is incredibly calm for the end of November. The smugglers tell their customers it’s just a lake. But it’s not. It really is not.
As the bodies were carried ashore and two survivors transported to hospital on Wednesday evening, volunteers from some of the many migrant aid associations descended on the port lighting candles and holding signs asking “how much more ? “.
Before Wednesday’s tragedy, 14 people had drowned this year trying to get to Britain, according to the local maritime prefecture. In 2020, seven people died and two went missing; in 2019, four died.
On Thursday, Darmanin, the Minister of the Interior, announced that a fifth suspected smuggler had been arrested in connection with the tragedy. He was driving a car with German license plates and “bought boats in Germany,” he said.
Pierre Roques, from L’Auberge des Migrants, an NGO, said the English Channel was in danger of becoming as deadly as the Mediterranean. “People are dying here,” he said. “It’s becoming a cemetery. And because England is right in front, people will continue to cross.