'They were screaming for help' Fisherman tells of battle to save migrants as four die in harrowing scenes in Channel

14 December 2022, 08:20 | Updated: 15 December 2022, 06:49

The fisherman woke to migrants surrounding his boat 'screaming' for help as four die and 43 are rescued in the Channel
The fisherman woke to migrants surrounding his boat 'screaming' for help as four die and 43 are rescued in the Channel. Picture: Sky/Alamy
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

A fishing boat captain has told of the harrowing moment he woke to the sounds of migrants 'screaming for help' after the boat they were travelling in capsized in the freezing waters of the English Channel, killing four.

The boat's skipper, Raymond, explained how he was woken by a member of his crew to find the boat "surrounded" by migrants, counting up to 45 people clinging to their boat in cold, choppy waters.

"One guy was hanging off my wire," said the captain in an interview with Sky News.

"I thought at first it was just him, and once I got my fishing gear up - which took about three minutes - I stopped my boat and ran outside and along the port side there were five of them hanging off the side of my boat."

A major rescue operation was launched following the discovery, after the small vessel the migrants were travelling in ran into difficulties in the English Channel near Kent, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said.

Four people are understood to have died and 43 were rescued from the stricken craft after the UK coastguard, the French Navy and an air ambulance raced to the site in the middle of the Channel.

British fishermen saved dozens 'screaming for help' from sinking boat

Lifeboats come to shore in Dover after the rescue operation
Lifeboats come to shore in Dover after the rescue operation. Picture: Alamy

"It was like something out of a second world war movie, there were people in the water everywhere, screaming," said the captain.

"The dinghy started to drift away, so I steamed towards the dinghy and we secured it with a rope to the side of the boat," he said."We were trying to pull them off the dinghy."

Home Secretary Suella Braverman told the Commons the tragedy highlighted the urgent need to "break the stranglehold of the criminal gangs who trade in human misery" by ferrying people to Dover in overcrowded and unsafe dinghies.

Searches are going to continue all day but rescuers are no longer looking for survivors, given the freezing temperature of the Channel. Authorities have not yet officially confirmed the number of fatalities.

Emergency Services at Dover lifeboat station this morning and inset, radar imagery of this morning's searches
Emergency Services at Dover lifeboat station this morning and inset, radar imagery of this morning's searches. Picture: Supplied

Lifeboat crew were pictured carrying out the grim task of unloading bodybags on stretchers onto the dock at Dover this morning.

Medics prepared for 'multiple casualties' after the major air and sea rescue operation in the English Channel.

The migrant boat got into difficulties in the early hours of this morning. Emergency calls reporting a migrant boat in distress were received by the UK coastguard shortly before 3am.

Marine radar shows a cluster of boats, believed to be the search party, off the Kent coast
Marine radar shows a cluster of boats, believed to be the search party, off the Kent coast. Picture: Marinetraffic.com

As well as an HM Coastguard Search and Rescue helicopter vessels at the scene include two RNLI lifeboats from Ramsgate and Rye, the Royal Navy patrol boat HMS Severn, a French coastguard patrol boat Kermorvan as well as two fishing vessels.

East Kent Hospitals said in a statement they were "placed on standby in the early hours of this morning following an incident off the Kent coast, working with SeaCAMB, Navy, Border Force, Kent Police and other partners. We were stood down at around 9am."

Police at the scene in Dover today
Police at the scene in Dover today. Picture: LBC

Delivering a statement to the Commons in response to the incident, the Home Secretary said: "These are the days that we dread. Crossing the Channel in unseaworthy vessels is a lethally dangerous endeavour.

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"It is not cruel or unkind to want to break the stranglehold on criminal gangs who prey on human misery. This is the most sobering reminder possible of why we have to end these crossings."

The rescue comes less than a day after the Prime Minister announced a raft of new plans to try to stop the illegal flow of migrant boats and reduce the asylum backlog of around 150,000 cases.

They include a "small boats" command centre and a new agreement with Albania which will see Border Force officials posted in the country.

Would-be migrants arriving in Dungeness a few days ago
Would-be migrants arriving in Dungeness a few days ago. Picture: Alamy

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A Maritime and Coastguard Agency spokesperson said: "HM Coastguard is currently coordinating a search and rescue response to an incident involving a small boat off Kent, working with the Navy, Border Force, Kent Police and other partners.

"We have sent Dover, Dungeness, Hastings and Ramsgate RNLI lifeboats and Deal, Dungeness and Folkestone coastguard rescue teams, along with the coastguard area commander.

"HM Coastguard helicopters from Lydd and Lee on Solent and one from the French Navy are involved. A fishing vessel in the area is also assisting in the rescue. South East Coast Ambulance and Kent Police are working with us and an air ambulance has been sent.

"HM Coastguard will continue to safeguard life around the seas and coastal areas of the UK, working with search and rescue resources in the area. If a vessel needs search and rescue assistance, HM Coastguard will continue to respond to all those in need."

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Dover MP Natalie Elphicke said: "I am very saddened to hear that lives are feared to have been lost following a small boat tragedy in the English Channel this morning.

"My thoughts and prayers are with all those involved."

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said on Twitter: "I am aware of a distressing incident in the Channel this morning and I am being kept constantly updated while agencies respond and urgently establish the full facts.

"My heartfelt thoughts are with all those involved."

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "We are devastated to hear news of the incident in the Channel today and heartbroken at the reports of fatalities.

"Our thoughts are with all those affected and we pay tribute to the rescue teams working on such a dreadful incident.

"Sadly, this is not the first time we are waking up to such devastating news of people having lost their lives on a harrowing journey to Britain in search of safety.

"It is just over a year since 32 lives were lost in a similar incident. Like those involved in this incident today, they had hopes and dreams for the future. They weren't illegal. They were desperately seeking safety.

"We will be monitoring the situation carefully and in the meantime we thank all those people who have expressed their sympathy and solidarity with those affected by today's horrendous incident."

British Red Cross director of refugee support Alex Fraser said: "That anyone is making this journey in these temperatures shows just how desperate people are.

"Nobody puts their life at risk like this unless they feel they have no other option, and until we have more accessible safe routes for people to claim asylum, there is a danger we may see more such incidents.

"Our thoughts are with those on the boat, their families and those involved in the ongoing rescue mission."

The worst drowning of migrants crossing the Channel happened on the night of November 24, 2021.

A rubber dingy carrying carrying 34 people sank after repeated calls for help to rescue services on both sides of the Channel.

In July it was reported a preliminary investigation, carried out by a law firm on behalf of some of the relatives, uncovered communications between the British and French emergency services which suggests neither side took responsibility for the unfolding disaster.