Very little is known about the 27 people who drowned trying to cross the Channel in an inflatable boat on Wednesday, other than that many are thought to have come from northern Iraq.
In the Kurdish village of Ranya, families had been waiting for days for news from loved ones they knew were planning to attempt the perilous crossing on Wednesday, but whose phones had gone silent. Some hoped their sons, brothers, daughters and sisters had made it across the Channel and were now in detention centres in the UK. Others feared the worst.
One man showed the Guardian a map on his phone with a red pin halfway across the Channel – a location marker sent from his son’s phone before it went dead.
A text exchange between another, Twana, and his brother Zana was even more ominous. “Now we are going to the boat,” Twana wrote. “How is the weather, is it good? How many people are you?” Zana asked. “The weather is not good,” came the reply. There had been no messages from Twana since.
Kurdish Iraq has spawned thousands of migrant journeys, with 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 one London-based Kurd who spoke with a relative in Dunkirk on Wednesday and has not heard from him since. “We think at least one boat made it here, but no one has confirmed anything.”
In Ranya, worried families had been in constant contact with their relatives in Dunkirk before the phones went dead. “My brother left home in August 2021 and he went to Turkey, then Italy, and on the 1 November he arrived in France,” said Zana. They tried to cross to the UK six times. This attempt was the seventh.
“I was in touch with him until their boat engine stopped working and also the front of the boat was losing air. The boat was inflatable and it was grey. They then called French police and the police told them you are outside our border. Then they called the UK police and the police said, ‘We will come to rescue you.’ The police asked them to turn on their mobile flashlights.
“I was in touch with him for 20 minutes after they called the British police and then I lost connection with them. He sent me the location of where their engine stopped. Since then I have no information about him.
“He was always with 10 other people from Ranya and I was in touch with all of them. None of their families know anything about them.”
Zana said those who had previously crossed the Channel had thrown their phones in the sea as the police approached, to prevent UK authorities discovering who else might be attempting the same journey.
“If the police see that they are in touch with people in the UK, then they make problems for people there who are helping them. We wish we knew something. Even the smallest thing.”
He described the mood in the family home as “funereal”. The same solemnity was evident in another home not far away, where dozens of cars were parked in front of a small house, full of sombre guests.
“We believe this tragedy happened after the UK government conspired with the French to stop these crossings happening,” said one of the guests. “Usually the sea is full of ships and that’s why the six earlier attempts failed. But on that night it was empty and over 250 people took advantage of it. There were no police on the water. And the search and rescue drone wasn’t flying.”
One man cried as a list of missing Ranya men – mostly aged 18 to 25 – was written out and passed around. By evening, there were 10 names of people 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 that some of these boys are likely in a UK prison and we are thankful for that. But we know in our hearts that others are not coming home. In our culture it’s early to say this. But may God rest their souls.”