Little is known about the 27 people who drowned while trying to cross the Channel in an inflatable boat on Wednesday, other than those believed to have come from northern Iraq.
In the Kurdish village of Ranya, families waited for news from their loved ones, who they knew were planning to attempt the dangerous crossing on Wednesday, but whose phones had gone silent. Some hoped that their sons, brothers, daughters and sisters had made it across the channel and are now in detention centers in the UK. Others feared the most.
One man showed the Granthshala a map on his phone with a red pin across the channel – a location marker sent from his son’s phone before he died.
Secondly, a text exchange between Twana and her brother Zana was even more ominous. “Now we’re getting on the boat,” wrote Twana. “How’s the weather, is it nice? How many people are you there?” Zana asked. “The weather is not good,” came the reply. There has been no message from Twana since then.
Kurdish Iraq has given rise to thousands of migrant journeys, many of its people ending up in the European Union or the UK. But the recent exodus has been different. “It was really dangerous and really desperate,” said a London-based Kurd, who spoke with a relative in Dunkirk on Wednesday and has since received no response. “We think at least one boat has made it here, but no one has confirmed anything.”
In Ranaya, worried families were in constant contact with their relatives in Dunkirk before the phones went off. “My brother left home in August 2021 and went to Turkey, then to Italy, and on November 1st he reached France,” Zana said. He tried to cross the UK six times. This was the seventh attempt.
“I was in contact with them until the engine of their boat stopped working and there was no wind in the front of the boat. The boat was inflatable and it was gray. Then they called the French police and the police told them you were out of our range. Then he called the UK police and the police said, ‘We will come to save you.’ The police asked him to turn on the flashlight of his mobile.
“I was in touch with them for 20 minutes after I called the British police and then I lost contact with them. They sent me to the place where their engine had stopped. I haven’t had any information about that since then.
“He was always with 10 other people of Ranya and I was in touch with all of them. None of his family knows anything about him.”
Zana said those who had previously crossed the Channel had thrown their phones into the sea, as police approached, so that UK authorities would not find out who was attempting the same journey.
“If the police see that they are in contact with people in the UK, they create problems for the people there who are helping them. I wish we knew something. Even the smallest thing.”
He described the mood in the family home as a “funeral”. The same seriousness was visible in another house not far away, where dozens of cars parked in front of a small house full of gloomy guests.
“We believe this tragedy occurred when the UK government conspired with the French to prevent these crossings,” said one guest. “Usually the sea is full of ships and that is why the earlier six attempts failed. But that night it was empty and more than 250 people took advantage of it. There was no police on the water. And the search and rescue drone was not flying.”
A man cried as the list of missing Ranya men – mostly aged 18 to 25 – was written down and passed around. Till evening, the names of 10 such people came out whose phones had gone silent.
“We really want to hear something,” said a villager from nearby Pashdar, who spoke to a relative in London. “We know some of these boys are in prison in the UK and we are grateful for that. But we know in our hearts that others are not coming home. It’s too early in our culture to say that. But God rest their souls. Give.”