Horrific details of the disaster began to emerge on Thursday, as four people smugglers who are alleged to have organised Wednesday’s fatal crossing were placed in custody facing manslaughter charges.
Just two men escaped from the inflatable craft which mainly contained so far unidentified Iraqi Kurds and Somalians who had paid the equivalent of up to £6,000 each for a passage to England.
Very few of them were wearing life jackets, and most are thought to have succumbed to hypothermia in the extremely cold water.
Seven of the dead were women, including one expecting a baby, while three children were also among the deceased.
The survivors – one an Iraqi Kurd and another a Somalian – have indicated that a container ship collided with them, causing their flimsy boat to deflate, according to rescuers who were first on the scene.
Autopsies will take place in Lille “over the next few days”, said Carole Etienne, the city’s public prosecutor, who is leading a criminal enquiry into the tragedy.
Bernard Barron, president of the SNSM rescue service in Calais, spoke of “group murder” as he described how the “floating death trap” that was meant to contain a maximum of 10 people.
Mr Barron said: “Migrants are forced into the boat, and their feet are in water and fuel. These are unimaginable conditions.
“Often only women and children have life jackets, and these boats don’t have navigation lights or radar receivers.”
Charles Devos, also one of the first SNSM rescuers to reach the victims, said: “We’ve seen the boats becoming more and more overcrowded.
“The inflatables are only designed for 10 people, but more than 50 have been packed on board, turning them into floating death traps.
“We always thought that, one day or another, they were going to collide with a container ship or a ferry.”
The rescuers believe the boat left Loon-Plage, near Dunkirk, on Wednesday morning and collided with the container ship at the limit of French territorial waters.
The two men “made a miracle escape”, said Mr Devos, but their condition in hospital in Calais was said to be extremely serious.
Those arrested – whose names have not been released – are all men who were stopped as they fled towards the Belgium border on Wednesday night.
They are expected to appear before local magistrates this week for a fast track trial.
All are thought to be part of a criminal gang and they face charges of manslaughter and assistance with illegal immigration in an organised gang.
Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, also accused the smugglers of being murderers, saying: “The poor migrants spent months and months coming here, and died so close to their dream.”
The tragedy happened as migrants rushed to make the dangerous crossing ahead of winter storms which are expected to sweep in this weekend.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin disclosed that 255 migrants reached the UK on Wednesday. He blamed the trafficking gangs taking people to Britain and promising them an “El Dorado” in the UK.
President Emmanuel Macron said France would not allow the Channel to become a ‘cemetery’.
Calling for an emergency meeting of European ministers, the French leader said: “It is Europe at its deepest level - humanism, respect for the dignity of each person, that is in mourning following the death of 31 migrants off the coast of Calais.”
He added that when migrants arrive on French shores with hopes of heading to Britain “it is already too late”.
And Natacha Bouchart, the Mayor of Calais, said: “I have been warning for weeks and months that this sort of tragedy was bound to happen.”
“I say that enough is enough,” Ms Bouchart said, as she accused Britain’s lax benefits system of encouraging immigration.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile accused France of failing to do enough to stop migrants from crossing the Channel.
He said that the gangsters smuggling people across the English Channel were “literally getting away with murder”.
Some 27,000 migrants have crossed the Channel this year and more than 4,000 have made the journey in November so-far.
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