Channel deaths: Mayday call by French coastguard emerges after 27 killed in boat tragedy
25 November 2021, 15:15 | Updated: 25 November 2021, 23:22
A mayday call by French coastguard requesting urgent help from "all ships" during yesterday's Channel boat emergency has been obtained by Sky News.
Twenty-seven people - 17 men, seven women and two teenage boys and a girl - died near Calais while trying to cross in a flimsy boat.
Two people survived and were taken to hospital with hypothermia.
In the mayday call, the coastguard can be heard putting out an alert to all boats in the area.
The radio operator gives coordinates and asks nearby vessels to attend, telling them that 15 people are in the water.
The operator says: "Mayday relay, mayday relay, mayday relay. This is Gris-Nez emergency, Gris-Nez emergency, Gris-Nez emergency.
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"Information number one: Mayday. 15 man overboard, approximately. 15 man overboard."
They add: "All ships in this area are requested to have a [unclear] lookout to proceed to this area to take contact and report any information to Gris-Nez emergency co-ordinating this operation."
Charles Devos, regional manager of lifeboat association (SNSM) in Calais, was one among the first people at the scene.
He told Sky News that he dragged six bodies from the sea, including a pregnant woman, and seeing those drowned was "traumatic".
"I can't remember such a tragedy. It's inexplicable," he said.
"I saw the blow-up boat had really deflated. Was it a valve that came loose or did it hit an object? You never know but I don't think it was a collision."
And he said: "I think it happened due to overloading. Don't forget, you think the sea is calm. The sea isn't calm because it's nearly always choppy."
Mr Devos went on: "It's very, very shocking. It was a bit like the film Titanic when you saw all these people plunged into the water, drowning, with no means of being able to be rescued.
"Unfortunately we were only able to recover the dead people."
Describing the dinghy, he said: "It was an inflatable, very light boat that was around 10m long."
He added: "It's not the first time I've boarded this type of boat. It's really light boats that are overwhelmed. The tragedy came about because the boat was overwhelmed. Boats that transport 20 people, we find them with around 50 people on them".
Matt Coker, skipper of the Portia fishing vessel, who was in the Channel on Wednesday and heard the mayday call, told Sky News: "As soon as I heard it I knew it was going to be very serious.
"Whenever you hear the call "mayday, people in the water" you know it's an all-out sprint for people to get there and rescue them."
The Kurdish government told Sky News that some of the victims were Kurds and that it has appealed to the UK and EU for help stopping migrants leaving Iraq.
The two survivors were Somali and Iraqi.
Wednesday's loss of life is the worst of the migrant crisis, which has seen numbers reaching the UK by sea surge from 8,417 in 2020 to more than 25,000 so far this year.
A government minister revealed last week that just five people had been returned to Europe after crossing the sea on small boats.
Deportations as a whole - not just for people who cross the Channel - are at a historic low.
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In the year to June 2021 they decreased to 2,910 - less than half the previous year. The government blamed the drop on the pandemic.
The UK insists France must do more to stop the crossings, while France says the UK should deter people from wanting to enter the country in the first place.
French interior minister Gerard Darmanin told RTL radio that migrants are "often attracted" to the UK jobs market and blamed human trafficking gangs who promise the "El Dorado of England".
Jean-Philippe Nahon, regional commander of the French border police, told Sky News: "We're doing the maximum to fight against this issue.
"It's clear that yesterday's dramatic event isn't good enough. At the same time, it reinforces our determination to fight against the trafficking of migrants."
Priti Patel, the home secretary, told the Commons the deaths were a "dreadful shock" but "not a surprise".
"It does need a Herculean effort and it will be impossible without close cooperation between all international partners and agencies," she said.
In a call with Mr Darmanin, she renewed an offer to send British officers to join patrols on French beaches.
Ms Patel said she had made a "very clear" offer to send personnel for "joint patrols to prevent these dangerous journeys from taking place".
Boris Johnson is understood to have made the same offer to French President Emmanuel Macron.
But Calais MP Pierre-Henri Dumont called it a "crazy" proposal that "will not change anything" along a shoreline that stretches several hundred kilometres.
Mr Johnson said after Wednesday's emergency COBRA meeting that French efforts operations "haven't been enough" despite the UK giving £54m.
Mr Macron said on Thursday that he was requesting more assistance from the UK.
"We are going to ask for extra help from the British because all these men and these women don't want to stay in France," he said.
"We tell them they're obviously able to do so, and there are centres in Calais and Dunkirk where they can go, but we're going to reinforce in fact saving them at sea."
(c) Sky News 2021: Channel deaths: Mayday call by French coastguard emerges after 27 killed in boat tragedy