Channel deaths: Lifeboatman recalls ‘trauma’ of pulling bodies from water – but people are not easily dissuaded by tales of tragedy
Dawn is still breaking when we call in on Charles Devos, the man who saw it all.
Charles is a lifeboatman, just like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him. It was his boat that responded to a Mayday call, reporting that 15 people had fallen into the water in the middle of the Channel.
When he arrived, it was a dreadful scene. Charles pulled body after body from the water.
“Unfortunately we were only able to recover dead people,” he says, standing in the small office building by the town’s port.
He said the boat would have been about 10 metres long, but that it was completely unsuited to the choppy waters of the Channel. By the time he arrived, it had deflated. The boat had become simply a piece of useless plastic.
“Was it a valve that came loose or did it hit something? We may never really know, but I don’t think it was a collision,” says Charles. “The boat was overwhelmed. The sight of these people, drowned, and then having to recover them… it was traumatic.”
But will it change anything? Does death on this scale move the dial? Charles shrugs. “They’re going to continue to try to cross. Calais to Dover is the shortest route. Unfortunately I think there will be more departures.”
He is, of course, correct. As we spoke, other boats were setting off from the beaches up and down this coast. At the main station in Calais, we found dozens of people, many soaking wet, who had tried and failed to get across the Channel and were now being bussed off to temporary accommodation. They will try again, probably quite soon.
Hassan is a good example. An Iraqi Kurd, he is sleeping rough near Dunkirk. “I heard the news. I have to be honest, I don’t care about other people. If I have my life jacket on I can swim to get to the UK. My heart is strong and I can swim. My life would be much better if I got to the UK. I try every day.”
It is a statement that sounds callous, but is actually born of pragmatism. The people who crowd these camps in northern France are there with only one aim in mind, and that is to reach the shores of Great Britain.
They have often spent months, as well as thousands of pounds, getting this far, eluding police, border guards and enduring pain and discomfort. They are not easily dissuaded, even by appalling tales of tragedy.
The town of Calais was already weary of its reputation as a magnet for migrants, and now the atmosphere is even more taut. Lots of local people find the topic simply too irritating to talk about; others decry the lack of police presence and say Calais has been dragged down by a stream of transient arrivals that stretches back about two decades.
But there are also those who think the answer lies in better care and more robust accommodation, so as to integrate migrants into the community around them.
The French police often play their own two-sided game, releasing a lot of officers into the area as a show of strength, but then watching as boats are carried down beaches.
The simple fact is that there are no easy answers. The UK and France both blame the other for not doing enough, while the tides that push people towards the migration route to Britain are many and various.
For a long time, migration has seemed like a theoretical discussion, clouded in politics, economics and questions of culture and heritage. But now it has a dreadful, personal history. Out in the cold, bleak waters of the Channel, 27 people died a horrible death, just because they wanted to get to Britain.