The English Channel tragedy: the deadliest pursue of a better future

07-12-2021 04:38
Migrants sit beside a boat used to cross the English Channel as more migrants are helped ashore from a RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) lifeboat at a beach in Dungeness, on the south-east coast of England, on November 24, 2021, after being rescued while making the crossing. Ben STANSALL / AFP

PEREGRAF– Surkew Mohammed and Haval Ghalib

Twana last contacted his family late Tuesday night. The 18-year-old told his family on the night of November 23 that he had boarded a small dinghy 25 minutes ago from France to the UK.

"We don't have any problems," he had said. "The weather is nice, we are sitting comfortably in the boat, we are 33 passengers, but our boat is smaller than the ones before us," Zana Mohammad, Twana’s brother told Peregraf.

This was the last time his family had heard from him. The young guy from Sulaimaniya province’s Hajiawa region was among over 30 other unidentified migrants whose boat capsized in the English Channel.

Twana left the Kurdistan Region to Turkey on August 13, from where he took a boat to Italy and arrived in France on October 27. Since then, he tried to reach the UK six times to no avail, until his final departure on November 23.

That night, a number of small boats had sailed the English Channel, one of which went from Calais on the French border to Dover in the UK.

Twana’s family believed, with utmost certainty, that they had reached UK's territorial waters - an issue both countries have refused to confirm was on their territory.

Twana’s sister spoke to him until the early morning of November 24, saying their boat was about to sink at the time. Twana sent their location to his sister, and told her "I can see the city lights of Dover from the boat," his brother said.

Peregraf tried to reach out to his sister to comment, but was not available to comment.

The last chat between Twana and her sister

"Twana said at the time that they had notified the British and French police 20 minutes ago, they asked them to turn the flashlights on their phones on until they reached them, but they didn’t go," Zana said.

Photo of Twana

News of the incident quickly spread throughout the international media, described as the biggest loss of life on that Channel, where at least 27 people drowned, most of them Kurds.

So far, there are only two known survivors; two young men, one from Somal and the other from Kurdish-populated areas of Iran, known to Kurds as Rojhelat. Bodies of 27 men, women and children have been found but are not all identified yet.

"The weather was very cold, the water was also very cold, and people were drowning before my eyes. Those who didn't know how to swim drowned in a few minutes’ time," Mohammed Issa Omar, the survivor from Somal, told BBC. Adding that almost everyone drowned in a matter of three and a half hours.

Omar, who had swam and stayed in the water until sunrise before French police rescued him, noted that a passenger on the boat called the British authorities to help them. By the time they were asked to send their location their mobile phones had fallen into the water.

Dan O'Mahoney, commander of the sea border force, told the UK parliament’s human rights committee that the UK received dozens of calls at that time and had responded to all of them, but said they don’t know for certain whether they received a call from that specific boat.

He added that when the French authorities notified them about the boat, it was "well within French territorial waters. We made all of our boats available. But it may be impossible to ever say with accuracy whether the boat was in UK waters prior to that." 

Results of the investigation and identification of the victims are not revealed yet. DNA samples were taken from Twana’s sister, and other family members of people from that boat for identification.

Twana’s brother, Zana, said they had asked the two survivors about their brother, but they had said "we were don’t know your brother, it was dark that night and everyone’s face was covered, so we don't know if he was on the dinghy or not." 

The majority of those who tried to reach Europe and the UK, particularly from the Kurdistan Region, are leaving to secure a better future for themselves.

"My son thought even if he finished his studies, he would not have found a job nor gotten employed, that’s why he dropped out and left," the father of one of a 20-year-old guy from that boat, who requested to stay anonymous, told Peregraf.

According to the father, "the French police did not allow the bodies of the sinking boat to be seen, but they took DNA samples for scanning through their families. This was taken from around 10 families in the Kurdistan Region."

He added that he had spoken to other migrants on a different boat that was on the waters that day. They had told him "three were alive on the boat," but passengers on their boat "did not allow them to be brought onto theirs," fearing they would drown.

The Kurdistan Region saw mass migrations this year. People have tried to reach Europe through Turkey and Belarus, most of whom are not allowed to cross and are trapped on the Belarussian borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Others have crossed from France to Britain.

Rizgar Hussein Mohammed said his eldest daughter called him at 11:10 in the morning on November 23, saying "we are going to the UK on a dinghy, pray for us to get  there safely."

‌Rizgar’s wife and three children made attempts to reach Europe for four months. He has been waiting for results of the identifications, as they are among those whose fate is unknown.

His eldest daughter is 22, and his son is 14-year-old and his youngest daughter is seven. "They took the road to Europe for a better future" according to Rizgar, who lives in Darbandikhan.

The photo of Rizgar's wife and children

People try several different routes to reach the UK from France, the fastest but most expensive way is hiding in trucks that travel these roads. It costs more than 8,000 euros per person. Another way is crossing the English Channel, which can cost between $1,000 to about $4,000 - depending on the number of passengers, type of the boat and timing.

Ari Jalal, head of the Summit Foundation for refugees (Lutka) told Peregraf they have 17 registered missing, or unidentified cases from the boat that drowned in the English Channel. "Our representative in France has met with the police, we have created documents for DNA inspection for them," said Jalal.

According to Lutka, 33 people were on the boat, 27 bodies were found and two survived, one of whom lived in the Kurdistan Region.

Jalal added it is not yet clear whether they drowned in French or British territorial waters, but the migrants had contacted police from both sides but help had arrived when it was too late. There are also speculations that they were on the British side but the tides might have taken them back to France.

There was a global to this tragedy. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) described it as the "worst disaster on record" of the English Channel. According to statistics from IOM, 166 people have drowned in the English Channel in the past seven years.