From file: Belongings left behind on a beach near Wimereux, France, November 24, 2021 | Photo: Reuters
From file: Belongings left behind on a beach near Wimereux, France, November 24, 2021 | Photo: Reuters

Five suspected people smugglers were arrested the day after a shipwreck off the coast of Calais claimed the lives of 27 migrants. The investigation into this tragedy is ongoing, with the first details beginning to emerge. The inflatable boat is believed to have set off from Dunkirk and to have collapsed under the weight of its passengers.

Five persons, suspected of people smuggling, were arrested less than 24 hours after the shipwreck was reported. According to French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin speaking on RTL radio, the fifth smuggler arrested had "a German license plate." He had "bought zodiacs [dinghies] in Germany," he said, adding that he had no more specific details on the circumstances of the tragedy.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 4 suspected smugglers were in custody. Photo: Marc Demeure/La Voix du Nord
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 4 suspected smugglers were in custody. Photo: Marc Demeure/La Voix du Nord

Initial information is beginning to emerge about the victims. It has been confirmed that 17 men, seven women -- one of whom was pregnant -- and three minors died when the inflatable boat deflated and took on water off the northern port of Calais on Wednesday, according to public prosecutors in Lille. A manslaughter probe has been opened.

Two survivors, an Iraqi and a Somali, are reported to be in stable condition. They were in "serious hypothermia yesterday" but they are "a little better today", said Darmanin, adding that they would be interviewed about the disaster as soon as they were feeling strong enough.

Read more: Macron vows English Channel will not become a 'cemetery' after 27 migrants drown

Boat left from Dunkirk

A fishing boat sounded the alarm on Wednesday afternoon after spotting several people in the sea off the northern coast of France. The tragedy took place on a "long boat", a fragile inflatable boat with a flexible bottom that has been used increasingly by smugglers since the summer. Darmanin described the boat as a dinghy that was "extremely fragile". He said "it was like a pool you blow up in your garden."

The boat set off from Dunkirk, according to a source close to the case. The wreckage has been seized and will be examined to clarify the causes of the sinking, the prosecutor said.

"This is the disaster we feared since the beginning of the migration crisis," Bernard Barron, president of the SNSM station in Boulogne-sur-Mer, told Ouest-France. "Migrants now take to the sea on inflatable boats that we call IRB. These are floating boats, designed to carry a maximum of ten people, but which are being systematically overloaded."

A full legal and police arsenal has been put in place following this tragedy. The Lille Interregional Specialized Jurisdiction (Jirs) was put in charge of the investigation. It is specifically examining charges of "aiding illegal entry and residence in an organized gang", "manslaughter and involuntary injury" and "criminal association". The border police (PAF) and the maritime gendarmerie and the Central Office for the Repression of Illegal Immigration and the Employment of Foreigners without Permission (Ocriest) are also involved.

Read more: Dozens drown in English Channel's deadliest migrant drowning accident

'Since the beginning of the year, we have arrested 1,500 smugglers'

French Prime Minister Jean Castex held a ministerial meeting on Thursday morning to discuss "migrant crossings in the Channel following the dramatic shipwreck." The meeting was attended by Darmanin, Minister for Justice Eric Dupond-Moretti, Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly, Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian, and Secretary of State for Europe Clément Beaune.

Speaking on French radio on Thursday, Darmanin was eager to defend his record. "Since January 1, we have arrested 1,500 smugglers," he said, adding that the traffickers were operating as "mafia organizations" that "fall under the category of organized crime" with the use of "encrypted telephones".

34 deaths in the Channel in 2021 so far

Before this shipwreck, on November 12, three people died in the attempt to reach England. Four others are missing, presumed dead. The death toll for this year currently stands at 34. In 2020, six migrants died at sea and three others were reported missing. Four deaths were recorded in 2019.

For months, the northern coast of France has been militarized to prevent the crossing of migrants to England. Despite this, record numbers of migrants are departing French shores. Departures have even doubled in the last three months, the maritime prefect of the Channel and the North Sea, Philippe Dutrieux, had warned last Friday.

Darmanin announced additional means to prevent crossings to the English coast, including ultra-modern equipment to try to reduce the number of departures in the Channel.

As of November 20, 31,500 migrants had left the coast since the beginning of the year and 7,800 migrants had been rescued, Dutrieux said. A trend, he noted, that has not decreased despite the winter temperatures.


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