A search, and what had turned into a recovery rather than rescue operation in the English channel, has been scaled back, with now little prospect of finding any bodies, it is being reported.
This follows an incident that occurred in the early hours of December 14 when a small boat crammed with migrants, got into difficulties and began to sink. The vessel had left the French coast bound for the English mainland, where the “passengers” hoped for better life opportunities. Sadly, on this occasion it resulted in four people losing their lives; and although a further 39 were rescued, it has once again highlighted an ever increasing crisis for both the English and French authorities.
There were believed to be a further four people who were still unaccounted for, hence the continued search; but now approaching 72 hours later, the chances of finding anybody else appear to have been concluded as very unlikely.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said drones had been used and more would continue, but on a lesser scale. Ships in the area had been asked to post lookouts and they will continue to keep an eye out over the coming days for anything that could need reporting back.
Voice-note pleading for help
It was at around 3am on Wednesday that Nikolai Posner, who is the communications officer for the charity Utopia 56, which helps migrants in Calais, France, received a voice-note in which a man was begging for help, saying that there was water inside their small boat and that families and kids on board were panicking, with apparently babies being heard screaming in the background.
He said they attempted to respond to the message, but the reply was not received, then they contacted both the French and UK coastguards.
Trawler crew perform heroics
At around the same time a fishing crew first of all heard, and then spotted a dinghy full of people, sinking in the small stretch of ice-cold waters that lie between the English county of Kent, just off the coast of Dungeness, west of Dover, and northern France. The skipper, Ray Strachan, pulled his boat alongside the stricken inflatable, and his crew hauled 31 people to safety in a dramatic rescue operation.
Footage from a video shared by the trawler owner Ben Squire, showed crew members pulling people up out of the water and onto their boat, with some of the migrants remarkably dressed only in T-shirts and thin life-jackets, in sub-zero temperatures.
Mr Squire was understandably proud of the actions of the fishing boat crew and added that upon helping the migrants on board from the freezing water, they proceeded to give them hot showers, their own clothes and feed them, to help warm them up.
Emergency services arrive in minutes
In the video, very quickly the sky was lit up by the lights of rescue helicopters and lifeboats could be seen racing across the water to assist. In total 39 people were helped to safety including 8 children; but tragically four people, one of whom was a teenager, were unable to survive the ordeal and sadly lost their lives.
Unable to locate the missing four
The Royal Navy, French Navy, Coastguard and RNLI lifeboats all became involved and have been searching for nearly three days now for what would be bodies rather than survivors, of the four people that are understood to have entered the water, but have not been located.
Huge operation coordinated
In a statement delivered in the immediate hours after the incident, a spokesperson for the coastguard said that they were continuing to coordinate a search and rescue response, working with the Navy, Border Force, Kent Police and other partners. They confirmed that crews from Dover, Dungeness, Hastings and Ramsgate RNLI lifeboats stations had been in attendance, along with the Coastal Operations Area Commander.
In addition, HM Coastguard helicopters from Humberside, Lydd and Lee on Solent, together with one from the French Navy had been called to action, as well as a fixed wing Coastguard aircraft. Underlining the size of the operation they also clarified that there were three military vessels – two from the UK and one French – joining in with the search, as too were three independent fishing vessels in the area. At shoreside, South-East Ambulance, Kent Police and an air ambulance were deployed to provide expert and specialist assistance.
Busiest shipping lanes in the world
The tragedy came just one day after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had unveiled a host of new measures to come into play to try and curb the immensely dangerous Channel crossings. They are vital to get rid of the small and flimsy inflatable boats which are of no more the 7 metres in length, and which attempt a journey usually in the pitch black of night, in some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, where the average container ship would be around 366 metres in length.
Incredibly, latest government figures estimate that around 45,000 people have made that crossing this year.
Hundreds of ships per day
The Dover Strait separates the English Channel and the North Sea, and is a boundary between Great Britain and France, or continental Europe. It has a width of 18-25 miles, with a depth between 120 to 180 feet, with extremely strong currents in parts. It is possible to see the opposite coastline of both the countries with the naked eye, on a clear day.
Statistically, it is estimated that the Strait sees the passage of around 400 ships each day, ranging between cargo-carriers, Voyagers and Ro/Ro ferryboats.
Two nationalities make up half of the migrants making the crossings
In the year to September 2022 the UK received more than 72,000 asylum applications, and small boat arrivals accounted for roughly half of these. Remarkably, 50 percent of those arriving in the boats were of just two nationalities, namely: Albanian (35%) and Afghan (15%). The rest were made of of individuals from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt.
Astonishing increase in Albanian asylum seekers
In response, the government also announced a new agreement with Albania to place more UK Border Force staff in the Albanian capital, Tirana, and fast track the return of failed asylum seekers.
The increase from that country has been startling over the past two years. In 2020 there were just 50 who crossed over to the UK from France; in 2021 that number had gone up to 800, but in 2022 from January up to the end of September, it was an astonishing 11,241.
There is a link to the Albanian drug and people trafficking gangs that have gained a foothold in the north of France; but also a huge rise in nationals seeking economic opportunities in the UK.
Charity predicts more deaths
Tim Naor Hilton, who works with the charity “Refugee Action”, said the tragedy was both predictable and sadly inevitable. He went on to make a chilling claim that more people would almost certainly die trying to reach safety on these same routes, if the government did not create a solution which prevented the need for people to take such risks in order to claim asylum.
PM’s measures unlikely to bring about any sudden change
Mr Sunak has proposed to tackle the issue by introducing a new Small Boats Command Centre, which will bring together the military and National Crime Agency (NCA) to monitor Channel crossings and increase funding for the NCA to address immigration crime.
He also promised more raids on those suspected of involvement in the organisation of the illegal trips. In addition, he said the government would abolish the backlog of initial asylum decisions by the end of next year and move up to 10,000 migrants into disused university halls and holiday parks, to save on hotel costs.
Nevertheless, irrespective of any of these measures, desperate people will still risk their lives if the lives they have are so bad that they value them so little. So sadly they will continue to make these perilous journeys, in search of the possibility of some better existence.