Most of the 27 people, including pregnant women and three children, who drowned while trying to cross the Channel in an inflatable boat were Kurds from Iraq or Iran, French authorities said.
Authorities said two surviving men, an Iraqi and a Somali, were being treated for exhaustion and hypothermia at a hospital in Calais. A judicial investigation was opened by the Lille prosecutor’s office, with four men suspected of “direct involvement” in the attempted crossing arrested Wednesday and a fifth arrested early Thursday morning.
The bodies were brought to the port of Calais by boat and helicopter in the evening, where volunteers from local migrant aid associations lit candles and held up signs reading “How many more? After the International Maritime Organization described the tragedy as the biggest loss of life in the Channel since it began keeping records in 2014.
The Lille prosecutor’s office confirmed that 17 men, seven women and three teenagers – two boys and a girl – died in the disaster. “Reviews are underway this morning,” a spokesperson said. He said the lives of the survivors were not in danger.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told RTL radio on Friday that the fifth suspect was driving a car with German license plates and had “bought inflatable boats in Germany”. He said 1,500 suspected smugglers had been arrested in France since the start of the year.
“The main responsibility for this situation lies with the smugglers,” said Darmanin, describing them as “mafia-like organizations in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain”, adding: “France and Great Britain “Britain must work together. We can no longer be the only countries to fight against these smugglers.”
Darmanin also renewed his criticism of British refugee policies. “France expels around 20,000 illicit migrants a year,” he said. “Britain manages 6,000, about four times less than France, despite the fact that the UK takes in about half as many illicit migrants. The UK does not manage illicit migration well.
French media said the rubber dinghy, carrying at least 29 people, left Loon-Plage near Dunkirk and that they were most likely camping in the dunes near Grande-Synthe, the location of several migrant camps. The largest, housing around 1,500 people, was dismantled last week.
The winds were light and the sea was calm at the time, which led to unconfirmed reports in several media, including the newspaper La Voix du Nord, that the boat was struck by a container ship on the one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world or had buckled under the weight of its occupants, possibly after hitting the wake of a larger ship.
The first alarm was triggered around 2 p.m. by a French fishing boat which spotted bodies in the water off the coast of Calais, with French sea rescue services arriving at the scene shortly after. “The boat was found largely deflated, but still floating,” Bernard Barron, head of the Calais lifeboat service, told reporters. The people were recovered from the water, the temperature of which was estimated at 17 ° C, he said.
Dunkirk’s lifeboat service chief Alain Ledaguenel said the disaster was foreseeable. “It had to happen, and it happened,” he said. “We know that the means available for rescue at sea are insufficient.
French police said Thursday morning that they had come to the aid of 20 people on Wednesday evening. “Their boat was overloaded and quickly started to take on water, forcing its occupants to return to the beach,” a tweet said. “The police immediately went to their aid. “
French Prime Minister Jean Castex held a crisis meeting on Thursday with six cabinet colleagues including Darmanin, Minister of Justice Éric Dupond-Moretti, Minister of Maritime Affairs Annick Girardin, Minister of Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebbari and Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean -Yves Le Drian.
The Elysee Palace said in a statement Thursday that Emmanuel Macron had “informed Boris Johnson in a telephone call” that he “expected the full cooperation of Great Britain and [to] stop using a dramatic situation for political ends ”.
The French president “insisted on the need to act with dignity and with respect for the spirit of effective cooperation concerning human lives”. Interior ministers of the two countries will discuss the issue during the day, the statement said.