When the lifeboat reached the dinghy not long after 3pm on Wednesday it was a crumpled mass of grey rubber, barely inflated and scarcely afloat. And surrounded, in the cold, dark water of the Channel, by already lifeless bodies.
Two helicopters were hovering noisily overhead as Charles Devos, at the helm of a volunteer-run rescue vessel, spotted the bobbing shape in the water. “I just saw it there, pretty much completely deflated,” he said.
“We pulled out six floating bodies. I had a woman, a pregnant woman. A young kid, maybe 18 years old. Among those I lifted out of the water, not all were wearing lifejackets. With the water at that temperature, hypothermia sets in fast.”
Like many of the 31,500 refugees and migrants so far this year who have stepped fearfully into small boats on French beaches and set a course for Britain, 30 perilous miles away across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the 27 who died on Wednesday probably had less than an hour’s notice they would be leaving.
As the number of crossing attempts has more than doubled over the past three months, disregarding the autumn cold and water temperatures now at 12-13C, the criminal networks organising them have been giving their clients less and less warning.
Partly to take advantage of lulls in the weather, and partly to dodge police patrols, the gangs wait until the last possible moment, collecting people from one of the muddy, insalubrious, makeshift encampments – a handful of tattered tents, some abandoned shopping trolleys, disconsolate men muffled against the cold – behind the dunes sometimes minutes before boarding.
Depending on the type of network and the kind of deal they have done, the passengers will have paid between €1,000 and €2,000 for a single trip, with no money back if they are rescued at sea or the boat has to turn back, or up to €10,000 for multiple attempts, with a supposed guarantee of success.
Their smuggler is increasingly likely to have been part of a highly professional network. French police say one such gang dismantled this week was transporting as many as 250 people a month across the Channel, charging up to €6,000 a person for multi-trip packages and pocketing more than €3m.
Fifteen men including Iraqis, Romanians, Pakistanis and Vietnamese were arrested and €40,000 in cash was seized after the year-long investigation. Their inflatables, specially ordered in China to hold up to 60 people with no regard for safety, were imported to Europe via Turkey and collected from an address in Germany.
“This was a network of hardened criminals that by the end was operating 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.”
Crossings took place mainly under cover of darkness, in flotillas of four inflatables travelling together, with most of the passengers picked up from one of the many small encampments scattered around Grande-Synthe, about 4 miles west of Dunkirk. A bigger camp in the same area, near an Auchan hypermarket and home to perhaps 1,000 people, was torn down last week on the orders of the French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, after the number of people sleeping rough along the 30-mile stretch of coast between Dunkirk and Calais had trebled in three months, to 2,000.
“There have been a lot of successful crossings this summer, and that’s drawn more people up here,” said a Calais official who asked not to be named. “It’s very hard to prevent them. Police are stopping more now, but there are too many people, the coast is too long, and the people-traffickers are getting very professional.”
It was from the bleak and windwept sweep of Loon-Plage, just west of Grande-Synthe, that Wednesday’s fatal crossing – described by the International Organization for Migration as the biggest single loss of life in the Channel since it began keeping records in 2014 – is believed to have left.
Carrying at least 30 people – 19 men, two of whom survived, seven women and three teenagers, most from Iraqi Kurdistan – the flimsy inflatable must have set off in the early afternoon, in what rescuers said was light wind and relatively calm seas. It is unlikely anyone will ever know exactly what happened next.
According to Bernard Barron, the head of the Calais region volunteer lifeboat service, several scenarios were possible. “The Channel is basically a maritime motorway,” Barron said. “More than 300 boats travel through it every day. And some of those boats are very, very big. Giant container ships, supertankers.”
The smugglers’ boats carry no radar, no beacon, no lights, no safety equipment. Under overcast skies against slate-grey water, they are all but invisible. “And when a small inflatable boat like that crosses the wake of a giant container ship, the waves can be up to 2 metres high,” Barron said.
“You can imagine what it must feel like to the people in a boat as low in the water as that. A tsunami. So that’s one hypothesis. A straightforward collision is possible. A fatal construction flaw is possible, because these boats are very lightweight and made specially, at low cost, for the smugglers.”
The first alarm call, from the skipper of a fishing boat who had spotted bodies in the water, was received by the maritime surveillance and rescue centre at Cap Gris-Nez, 15 miles west of Calais, at 2.50pm. Search and rescue helicopters were scrambled and all local lifeboat services alerted.
“The Calais boat was in the water within 15 minutes, as required,” Barron said. “All the lifeboats along the coast – Berck, Boulogne, Calais, Gravelines, Dunkirk – were already on standby; we were expecting crossing attempts. Unfortunately for us, we were the first crew on site. The first to pull out the bodies.”
Barron said he and colleagues from along the coast were “at sea pretty much every day at the moment. Earlier yesterday it was two inflatables sinking off Le Touquet. The sea’s incredibly calm for late November. The smugglers tell their clients it’s just a lake. But it’s not. It really isn’t.”
On Wednesday evening as the bodies were being lifted ashore and two survivors were taken to hospital, volunteers with some of the many migrant aid associations were down at the port lighting candles and holding placards asking “how many more?”.
Before Wednesday’s tragedy, 14 people had drowned this year trying to make it to Britain, according to the local maritime prefecture. In 2020 seven people died and two disappeared; in 2019 four died.
On Thursday Darmanin, the interior minister, announced that a fifth suspected people smuggler had been arrested in relation to the tragedy. He had been driving a car with German plates and “bought boats in Germany”, he said.
Pierre Roques, of L’Auberge des Migrants, an NGO, said the Channel risked becoming as deadly as the Mediterranean. “People are dying here,” he said. “It is becoming a cemetery. And because England is right opposite, people will continue to cross.”