French prosecutors leading a manslaughter enquiry into the deaths of 27 people who died trying to cross the Channel have claimed there is “no provable link” between the five men arrested over the tragedy and the capsized boat.
However, that was refuted by the office of Carole Etienne, the state prosecutor in Lille, who claimed there was “no provable link”. It is unclear if the men have been released.
The prosecutor’s claims came after a day of political fallout following the disaster, thought to be the worst of its kind in the English Channel.
Both London and Paris pointed the finger at each other over culpability for the tragedy which took the lives of 17 men, seven women, and two boys and one girl. One of the women was pregnant.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to politicise the deaths of 27.
An account of the conversation between the two leaders on Wednesday evening offered by the Élysee Palace, stated that Mr Macron had told the Prime Minister that he expected “the British to co-operate fully and to refrain from using a tragic situation for political purposes”.
Speaking during a visit to Croatia on Thursday, Mr Macron himself said cooperation, not confrontation, was key to resolving the crisis.
“We are going to ask for extra help from the British because all these men and these women don’t want asylum in France,” said Mr Macron.
“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.”
According to Downing Street, both Mr Johnson and Mr Macron said that they would keep “all options on the table’ and ‘agreed on the urgency of stepping up joint efforts to prevent these deadly crossings”.
Home Secretary Priti Patel told the House of Commons that it was up to France to stop the Channel crossings.
There were two survivors from the tragedy – men of Iraqi and Somali nationality who were on Thursday suffering from severe hypothermia in hospital in Calais.
They have suggested to investigators that their boat was hit by a passing container ship before collapsing in the Channel.
A body that washed up on the beach at Sangatte on Thursday afternoon “might be a missing person” from the capsized boat, said a police source.
He added: “There is every indication that this corpse has been in the water for 24 hours, but it has yet to be confirmed that he was on the boat which capsized.”
If the body is of one of the migrants, then the death toll would rise to 28, with two survivors.
However, investigators indicated that figures may change as more information becomes available because nobody knows exactly how many people were on the boat when it sank.
None of the victims had passports or identity cards and police were unsure of their nationalities, Interior Minister Mr Darmanin said.
The absence of documents is usual because it makes it harder for the authorities to return the migrants to their countries of origin.
Very few of those onboard the boat that deflated were wearing life jackets, and most are thought to have succumbed to hypothermia in the extremely cold water before drowning.
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 ‘was completely deflated when we found it’.
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.
In was the deadliest ever incident of its kind ever, and led to a fisherman sounding the alarm at around 2pm after he saw corpses floating in the sea.
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 Mr Darmanin disclosed that 255 migrants reached the UK on Wednesday.
These included about 40 who were allowed into the sea near Boulogne by a French police car with at least two officers inside appearing to do nothing. They landed at around 2.45pm in Dungeness.
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.”
She said migrants paid between the equivalent of between £2000 and £6000 to make the crossing, fuelling a “mafia-style” criminal operation that was more profitable than drugs.
“I say that enough is enough,” Ms Bouchart said, as she accused Britain’s lax benefits system of encouraging immigration.
Ms Bourhart said: “The British government has imposed immigration control on our territory for the last 20 years. It has never had the courage to control this immigration back home. You have to react, react quickly to make it all stop.”