A fishing crew has given a shocking account of how drowning migrants ‘screamed’ for help – as it was confirmed that at least four died after a small boat capsized in the freezing Channel this morning.
The captain of the fishing vessel described the scenes as ‘something out of a Second World War movie’, saying they pulled more than 30 people from the water but at least one could not be saved.
‘There were people in the water everywhere, screaming,’ the skipper, named Raymond, told Sky News.
Those hauled aboard – who came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Senegal and India – said they had paid £5,000 to a trafficker in France for their passage.
Although 43 people were recovered and are receiving treatment, four have now been confirmed dead – with fears the grim toll could rise.
Rishi Sunak, who announced a package cracking down on Channel crossings just hours before the latest grim development, opened PMQs this afternoon by voicing ‘sorrow’ at the ‘tragic loss of human life’. Sir Keir Starmer said it was a ‘reminder that the criminal gangs running those routes put the lives of the desperate at risk and profit from their misery’.
Making a statement to MPs afterwards, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said the deaths were ‘the most sobering reminder possible of why we need to end these crossings’.
She said the premier’s package was a recognition that the Government ‘needs to go much further’ and stop people-smugglers.
Mr Sunak declared yesterday that more resources would be put into deterring small boats, smashing people-smuggling gangs and reforming the ‘obsolete’ asylum system.
Those coming from Albania are set to be sent straight back on the basis that it is a ‘safe’ country, while there will be a tougher approach to illegal immigration and a huge effort to clear the massive backlog in asylum applications.
Although the proposals sparked a backlash, Tories today insisted that the latest ‘awful’ events demonstrated ‘exactly why we need to stop this exploitation’. They dismissed claims that there are not enough official routes for seeking refuge in the UK, pointing to the large numbers coming from Afghanistan and Ukraine.
Experts warned that migrants needed to understand ‘we cannot guarantee your safety’ when they embark on the desperate trip across the Channel.
It is believed to be the first major rescue operation launched in the Channel since November last year, when at least 27 migrants perished after their dinghy submerged.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said the deaths overnight showed ‘debates about asylum seekers are not about statistics, but precious human lives’.
Raymond said he had been woken by a member of his crew who declared ‘there are migrants alongside the boat’.
They counted 45 people trying to cling on to the side of the vessel.
‘The dinghy started to drift away, so I steamed towards the dinghy and we secured it with a rope to the side of the boat,’ he said.
‘We were trying to pull them off the dinghy.’
The captain said ‘adrenaline kicked in’ and the group managed to drag 31 on board over the course of two hours, all of whom are thought to have survived.
Those rescued came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Senegal and India, and had apparently paid £5,000 to a smuggler in France for passage into the UK.
However, the skipper said when they started heading into port, they realised one migrant had attached himself to the other side of the boat and drowned.
A government spokesman said: ‘At 3.05am today, authorities were alerted to an incident in the Channel concerning a migrant small boat in distress. After a coordinated search and rescue operation led by HM Coastguard, it is with regret that there have been four confirmed deaths as a result of this incident, investigations are ongoing and we will provide further information in due course.
‘This is a truly tragic incident. Our thoughts are with the friends and families of all those who have lost their lives today.’
In her statement to MPs, Ms Braverman said: ‘This is an ongoing search-and-rescue incident but I can confirm at the time of making this statement tragically there have been four fatalities.
‘It would be inappropriate for me to go into further detail at this time.
‘There is a multi-agency response to this terrible tragedy.’
Ms Braverman said: ‘This morning’s tragedy, like the loss of 27 people on one November day last year, is the most sobering reminder possible of why we have to end these crossings.’
She told MPs that a full statement ‘will be provided to the House in due course once the facts have been fully established and the necessary investigative work completed’.
Ms Braverman also expressed her sympathies and paid tribute to those working on the search-and-rescue operation.
She said: ‘I know that everyone in this House and across the country will join me in expressing our profound sadness and deepest sympathies for everyone affected by this terrible event.
‘I know that they will also join me in offering our profound gratitude to those working on the search-and-rescue operation.’
Ms Braverman added: ‘We are strengthening our resolve, we are strengthening our will and we are strengthening our efforts to do whatever it takes as the Prime Minister has pledged to stop the boats crossing the Channel.’
She also told the Commons: ‘The deal that we signed last month with colleagues in France is a big step forward in our cross-Channel cooperation. For we share a common challenge.
‘That new arrangement will see more dangerous and unnecessary crossings being prevented. Last year, our joint efforts prevented over 23,000 unnecessary journeys.
‘To date, this year, that number is 31,000. That in itself is insufficient, but it’s a step in the right direction. The agreement that we have struck afresh with the French will go further.’
Shocking images have been screened showing survivors of the incident standing in the collapsed dinghy knee deep in water – sandwiched between the sides of the inflatable.
Some of the group are seen wearing red life jackets but one man could be seen in short-sleeved shirt in freezing conditions in the images shown on Sky News.
It appears the flimsy inflatable suffered a puncture, forcing the boat to lower into the water with its sides going up vertically as the terrified people on board had no alternative but to stand.
The Marine Traffic radar website this morning showed a cluster of vessels in the Channel between Lydd in Kent and the Cap Gris-Nez in France.
The inflatable boat is believed to have capsized some five miles off Dungeness, forcing more than 40 people into the icy sea.
A spokesman for the Channel Maritime Prefecture in France said that the French Navy and a ‘a fishing vessel in the area is also assisting in the rescue’.