Five men are being held in custody in France facing manslaughter charges over the deadliest incident of its kind over the past seven years which saw over two dozen men, women and children drown as they attempted to reach the UK.
The 27 people all died after their craft deflated beneath them following a collision with a container ship in the channel – which is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
French cops believe the gang behind the tragedy operates out of Germany.
And they believe the criminals bring migrants across the border into France to make the risky crossing from Calais.
Smugglers then use boats they have brought with them to send migrants out into the sea.
It is scheme understood to have been devised as a bid to avoid increased security around the Channel Tunnel and ports in Northern France.
Migrants are made to fork over sums of up to £6,000 for the journey which sees them driven to French beaches under the cover of darkness.
Rather than waiting around Calais or Boulogne, migrants who can afford the steep fee stay in Germany until the time comes to make the journey across the Channel.
It comes as the National Crime Agency told The Sun Online they have 50 ongoing investigations into criminal gangs linked to people smuggling across the Channel.
More than 140 people have been arrested since the start of the year – and “hundreds” of people in the UK are believed to play a role in the trade.
A spokesman for the force said: “Organised Immigration Crime (OIC) is a chronic threat; enduring, resilient, and as shown by recent and historic mass fatalities, very dangerous.
“The scale and complexity of the threat evolves all the time.”
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Thursday revealed that at least one of the smugglers was using a car “with German license plate”.
It is understood the people smugglers praying on migrants at Calais and other ports can be recognised due to their flash cars, often with foreign plates.
Sources described the gangs as “hardened criminals” who are making large amounts of money from their deadly operations.
Mr Darmanin said four suspected smugglers were arrested late on Wednesday.
He confirmed all were picked up as they travelled in cars beyond Dunkirk, and towards France’s border with Belgium.
It comes as
- A pregnant woman and three children were found to be among the 27 dead in the Channel
- French cops sat idly by as 40 migrants set sail on another flimsy raft
- Boris Johnson accused French authorities of allowing migrant smugglers to ‘get away with murder’
- The inflatable dinghy that sank in Channel, killing 27, was ‘frail’ and like a ‘paddling pool’
- France warned a year ago that turning a blind eye to Channel crossings would create a graveyard at sea
The fifth man was arrested in the early hours of Thursday morning in the Germany-registered car and had “bought small boats in Germany”, said Mr Darmanin.
“Since January 1, we have arrested 1,500 smugglers,” said Mr Darmanin, pointing to highly organised “mafia organisations” who often operate out of neighbouring countries such as Britain, Belgium and Germany.
The known victims were 17 men, seven women and three children, and all are Iraqi-Kurds or Somalians.
Two male survivors recovering from “severe hypothermia” are an Iraqi-Kurd and a Somalian, said Mr Darmanin.
The criminal investigation is being led by Lille magistrates who have opened an enquiry for “manslaughter, involuntary wounding, criminal conspiracy and helping with illegal immigration in an organised gang”.
Migrants are forced into the boat, and their feet are in water and fuel. These are unimaginable conditions.
Lille public prosecutor Carole Etienne said the bodies of all the deceased would be taken “to the Lille forensic institute for an autopsy”.
It is estimated around 26,000 people have made the perilous crossing in 2021 – with a renewed row over the issue between Britain and France.
And just hours have the tragedy some 40 people arrived in the UK in two more boats.
Bernard Barron, president of the SNSM rescue service in Calais, spoke of “group murder” over yesterday’s disaster.
He described how the “floating death trap” meant to carry no more than ten 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, 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 ten 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.”
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”.
This morning French police were out in force near Calais and stopped a bus load of migrants wearing life jackets.
President Emmanuel Macron said France would not allow the Channel to become a “cemetery”.
PM Jean Castex spoke of a “terrible tragedy,” adding: “My thoughts are with the many missing and wounded, victims of criminal smugglers who exploit their distress and their misery.”
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 accused Britain’s lax benefits system of encouraging immigration.
She added: “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.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile accused France of failing to do enough to stop migrants from crossing the Channel.
He said that the smuggling gangs were “literally getting away with murder”.