‘I saw people dying in front of me’: Survivors of Channel tragedy that killed 27 reveal how they desperately clung onto deflated boat and migrants’ phones were lost in water before they could send location to rescuers
- One of the survivors of Channel drowning tragedy recounted chain of events which led to 27 deaths
- Mohamed Isa Omar said: ‘I saw people dying in front of me. Those of us who could not swim, drowned’
- London and Paris in diplomatic spat after 27 migrants drowned off the coast of Calais when dinghy capsized
- More than 26,500 migrants have reached UK shores this year compared with just 8,410 in all of 2020
One of the survivors of last week’s Channel drowning tragedy has recounted the harrowing chain of events with led to the deaths of 27 migrants as they attempted the perilous crossing from France.
Speaking from a park in France, Mohamed Isa Omar said: ‘I saw people dying in front of me. Those of us who could not swim, drowned and died within minutes. It was so cold the water, so cold.’
In an interview with the BBC, the 28-year-old described how at least 29 people set off from mainland Europe at around 10pm last Tuesday and sailed for more than three hours before their dinghy deflated off the coast of Calais.
The panicking migrants dropped their phones in the water before they could send their location to rescuers, Mohamed said. He said he started swimming towards a big ship ‘far away’ – though it was hours before he was rescued.
The only other survivor, an Iraqi Kurd called Mohammed Shekha Ahmed, said a number of people tried to cling onto the deflated boat until the sun rose. Their bodies were discovered by a French fisherman more than 12 hours later a few miles from the coast in French waters. A rescue operation was launched, but the two men were the only ones left alive.
The incident worsened tensions between London and Paris, which have been simmering in recent months over a range of disputes including Channel crossings and post-Brexit fishing rights.
Britain has accused France of failing to stop migrants illegally crossing the Narrow Sea, despite promising to pay Paris £54million in installments to increase beach patrols along its northern coastline.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex will write to Boris Johnson today with proposals for a ‘balanced agreement’ between the UK and the EU.
But France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin launched yet another attack on the UK and said discussions could take place ‘very quickly’ – and only then, if Britain stopped engaging in ‘double-speak’ and entered negotiations in a ‘serious spirit’.
Emmanuel Macron had disinvited Home Secretary Priti Patel from crisis talks with her French counterpart after the Prime Minister sent an open letter in which he outlined a five-point plan to clamp down on people-smugglers responsible for sending asylum seekers to Britain.
The French President accused London of breaching French sovereignty, and former EU negotiator Michel Barnier even urged Paris to tear up its border treaty with London.
More than 26,500 migrants have reached UK shores since the start of the year compared with just 8,410 in all of 2020.
This is the first picture of the flimsy and dangerous dinghy that sank off Calais, killing 27 people
Up to 50 people were supposed to board two boats ahead of the fatal voyage – but one vessel suffered engine trouble, those stuck in camps in France claimed. Rather than curtail the trip that would have netted them tens of thousands of pounds, the gun-toting gang corralled the migrants into one boat, it was said
Policemen inspect the beach near Wimereux, France on November 25, 2021
Smugglers threatened to shoot migrants, including bride-to-be Mariam Nouri Dargalayi (pictured with fiance), unless they boarded the doomed dinghy that went down in Channel
The new arrivals bring the total number to have made it to the UK this month to more than 6,000, exceeding the previous record of 3,879 in September. This year’s total is now a record-breaking 25,772
Before this week’s accident, a total of seven people were confirmed to have died trying to make it across the Channel to Britain this year.
A further seven migrants were missing, presumed drowned, after various incidents this year.
March 2021: One migrant missing and feared drowned after the boat he was in trying to reach the UK capsized.
August 2021: At least two migrants drowned off the coast of the UK while another died after being airlifted to hospital as part of a huge air and sea rescue operation after a boat carrying around 40 people began taking on water.
October 2021: Three Somali migrants feared to have drowned after falling overboard while trying to reach Britain. A further four people, including two children, died while crossing.
November 2021: One migrant dies in day of record 853 crossings in early November. Yesterday, at least 27 migrants died off the coast of Calais in the deadliest ever incident in the Channel.
Last week, a former Labour Cabinet minister blamed the Channel crisis on Brexit and appeared to take sides with President Macron in their war of words.
David Miliband, chief executive of the International Rescue Mission, told Radio 4’s Today programme that Mr Johnson’s letter to the French President was ‘unwise’. The former Foreign Secretary, who supported the Remain campaign in the 2016 referendum, said the crisis is ‘a graphic demonstration of what Brexit means’.
‘I think the French government were quite wrong to disinvite the UK (for talks) because obviously the UK needs to be part of it,’ he said.
‘But the Government was most unwise to write a letter, apparently an hour after the Prime Minister spoke to President Macron, which on any reading could be seen to be designed to infuriate President Macron. You can say that he was wrong to be infuriated but it wasn’t sensible to try and infuriate him. And in the end we’re going to have to make up and make good for what Brexit has created.’
Mr Miliband said that before Britain left the EU, there was a scheme that gave the UK the right to send some asylum seekers back to the bloc.
‘That doesn’t exist and that’s one of the things that means we’re still going to be negotiating Brexit for some time to come,’ he added.
The devastated father of the first confirmed victim of the Channel migrant tragedy has accused France of allowing ‘butchers’ to send innocent people to their deaths.
Baran Nouri Hamadamin was one of 27 people who drowned after a flimsy boat capsized six miles off Calais during stormy weather. The newly engaged student had travelled through Germany and France to join her fiancé in the UK, paying human-traffickers to take her across the Narrow Sea.
Home Office minister Damian Hinds defended Mr Johnson’s letter, telling Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Nobody is proposing breaching sovereignty; the Prime Minister’s letter proposes doing things which go further than we have gone to date.’
He added: ‘The tone of the letter is exceptionally supportive and collaborative, it absolutely acknowledges everything the French government and authorities have been doing, that its a shared challenge, but that now, particularly prompted by this awful tragedy, we have to go further, we have to deepen our partnership, we have to broaden what we do, we have to draw up new creative solutions.’
Speaking from his home in Soran, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Miss Hamadamin’s father Nuri Mohammed Amin urged President Emmanuel Macron to stop allowing people-smugglers to treat people ‘like animals’.
Shakar Ali, 25, (left) and Harem Pirot, 23, (right) who grew up as neighbours in Iraq and set off together to find a new life in the UK are believed to have been on board the dinghy
Friend of Shakar and Harem Sanger Ahmed also told of his fears for two other Iraqi Kurds – Hassan, in his late twenties, and Twana Muhammad (pictured), 18, a student
The family of 27-year-old Deniz Ahmed Mohammed (left) said he left them a final voicemail saying ‘just pray for us’, while Riaz Mohammed, 12, (right) is also feared to be among dead
Police search Wimereux beaches near Bolougne days after 27 migrants died heading to the UK
How are people smuggling gangs exploiting English Channel crossings?
The sinking of a migrant boat with the loss of 27 lives off the coast of France has once again raised concerns about the people-smuggling trade.
For years law enforcement on both sides of the English Channel have been playing a game of cat and mouse with criminal gangs as tactics change and evolve.
National Crime Agency (NCA) deputy director Andrea Wilson said: ‘We look to target and disrupt organised crime groups involved in people smuggling at every step of the route.
‘Much of this criminality lies outside the UK, so we have built up our intelligence-sharing effort with law enforcement partners in France and beyond.
‘This includes having NCA officers based in those countries, sharing intelligence and working side by side on joint investigations.
‘This approach is bringing operational results in the form of arrests and prosecutions, as we have seen with this particular case.’
One focus in the UK and abroad has been on disrupting the supply of dinghies and other vessels that could be used in Channel crossings.
The sale of dinghies in French towns has reportedly been banned, with kayaks seen withdrawn from sale at a Calais store.
However one alleged smuggling gang targeted by police last year was thought to have been buying inflatable boats and engines from as far away as Germany and the Netherlands.
In the last couple of years, inflatable boats used in crossings have got bigger and bigger, now able to carry dozens of people – but not safely.
Home Secretary Priti Patel and the Government have repeatedly pledged to make the Channel route ‘unviable’, but the NCA previously said it views organised immigration crime as a ‘continuous threat’.
A joint UK-France intelligence cell that started in July 2020 has been involved in almost 300 arrests relating to small boat crossings, the Home Office said earlier this month.
Miss Hamadamin, a newly engaged student, had travelled through Germany and France to join her fiancé in the UK, paying human-traffickers to take her across the Narrow Sea.
She had been sending Snapchat messages to her fiancé Karzan Asaad before the dinghy began to lose air. As he tracked her phone GPS, the signal went dead just over four hours into the journey – and she tried to reassure him in her last message that rescuers were on the way. Her body was tragically identified by a relative at a French morgue.
Mr Amin said: ‘This is a tragedy not only for me but for the whole of Kurdistan and the world. I ask the French government to tighten their borders and stop those butchers. They are not smugglers, they are mafias. This is my only request.
‘Those boats that they are using are not made for that purpose. They treat those poor people like animals. Where were her human rights? It is the role of the French government to have a strict procedure to stop those butchers to avoid further tragedies. And I hope our people stop even thinking about migrating using similar ways.’
Friends of the migrants who drowned in the Channel said that people-smugglers threatened to show them unless they boarded the overcrowded dinghy.
Up to 50 people were supposed to board two boats ahead of the fatal voyage – but one vessel suffered engine trouble, those stuck in camps in France claimed. Rather than curtail the trip that would have netted them tens of thousands of pounds, the gun-toting gang corralled the migrants into one boat, it was said.
The chilling details emerged as more were named among those feared drowned in the tragedy off the coast of Calais.
France’s latest suggestion that talks with the UK could resume is a climbdown by Paris.
A UK government source said it appeared to be a ‘positive’ move after the diplomatic row which erupted following the capsize last week of a migrant boat with the loss of 27 lives.
Another source told The Times: ‘We stand ready to discuss, as we always have done. We’ll need to see the specifics but we look forward to those conversations.’
Mr Johnson infuriated French president Emmanuel Macron when he posted a letter on Twitter calling for joint patrols on French beaches and the return to France of migrants who succeed in making the dangerous Channel crossing.
Mr Macron said it was not a serious way to negotiate. But Mr Darmanin said on Monday the two countries needed to work together to deal with a shared problem.
‘From the moment there is no more double-speak, and we can discuss in a serious spirit, and our private exchanges correspond to our public exchanges, the French government is ready to very quickly resume discussions with Great Britain,’ he said.
Mr Darmanin said the proposals by Mr Castex could include ways to open up legal routes to the UK and for asylum seekers and to allow unaccompanied minors to join relatives in Britain.
However he said France could not accept the practice of turning back boats at sea, adding: ‘This is a red line for the French government’.
Meanwhile Mr Johnson is due to hold talks online with another of the key European players, Belgian prime minister Alexander de Croo.
Downing Street continues to insisted a returns agreement, as set out by Mr Johnson in his letter, would be the ‘single biggest deterrent’ to migrants attempting the Channel crossing.
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