France urged to charge traffickers with manslaughter after migrant family drowned in Channel

Henry Samuel
·4 min read
Members of the family who died in their attempt to cross the Channel
Members of the family who died in their attempt to cross the Channel

French investigators are being urged to bring manslaughter charges against the traffickers behind the deaths of a family of five migrants, including a 15-month old baby boy, in the Channel.

UK Government sources told The Telegraph that people smugglers would face up to 14 years in jail in Britain and be investigated for manslaughter for putting a boat packed with 22 men, women and children to sea in dangerous conditions.

Asked whether France should adopt the same approach and investigate them for manslaughter, a source said: "Completely – we have to go after the criminal gangs."

The Kurdish family, from Sardasht city in Iran, are among seven people now believed to have lost their lives in the worst disaster involving migrants attempting the perilous crossing. It is the first involving the deaths of children.

Rasoul Iran-Nejad, 35, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, 35, and their children Anita, nine, and Armin, six, were crossing from France on Tuesday in the cabin of a boat for which they had paid £21,600 passage, according to family and friends. Their 15-month old son Artin has yet to be found.

Pictures of the family circulated on social media
Pictures of the family circulated on social media

When the boat capsized two miles off the coast in seas whipped up by 18 mph winds, they were trapped in the cabin as 15 others on board were pulled from the water. Rescuers believe two other migrants are missing, feared dead.

The region's prosecutor, Sebastien Pieve, has already interviewed all but one of the 15 survivors detained as part of a criminal investigation and indicated on Wednesday that he could bring charges within the next 24 hours.

He said: "It's about establishing if they are victims or smugglers and identifying possible suspects, in particular the pilot of the boat."

Rasoul's brother Khalil said it was the family's third attempt to reach the UK after two previous bids by train. "We begged him to not try to cross by boat. He insisted on going," said Khalil, who last spoke to him on Monday.

This was despite the family's experience crossing by sea from Turkey to Italy before travelling through France to Dunkirk. "He told me that there were giant sea waves. He said: 'If I knew it was this dangerous, I would have never tried it,'" said Khalil.

Farhad Shekari, 28, also from Sardasht, said he had tried to talk the family out of attempting the crossing. He had been due to board the same boat at Loon Plage, near Dunkirk, at 8am on Tuesday but changed his mind when he saw how flimsy it was and the number of people trying to board.

"There were 22 people in the boat and I said there are too many people and I didn't want to go," he told The Telegraph at a makeshift migrant camp at Puythouck, in Grande Synthe, near Dunkirk. "I told people not to get in the boat. I said it was too dangerous.   "The family got on anyway. But I persuaded another not to get on board. They got angry with me, but I stopped them from getting on the boat.

"The smugglers are only interested in one thing, and that's money. The middle man was forcing people to get on the boat. He was saying: 'Go, go, go,' but he didn't force the family," he said, adding that although the children had been wearing life jackets, at least half of those on board were not.

A helicopter at Dunkirk, used in the search operation  - Denis Charlet/AFP
A helicopter at Dunkirk, used in the search operation - Denis Charlet/AFP

Alain Ledaguenel, the president of the French coastguard (SNCM) in Dunkirk, said that given the 1.1 to 1.5 metre waves, wind and cold water, the boat used was a death trap. "It wasn't a dingy but a polyester amateur fishing boat. It was overloaded and capsized because it almost certainly hit a wave sideways," he said.  

Rasoul, a construction worker, who had dropped out of school in grade four, left Iran with his family, partly due to poor living conditions and persecution, and had been in France for a month, according to relatives.

They had told fellow migrants they hoped to join at least one family member already living in the UK. Khalil said his brother had initially decided to aim for Germany or Switzerland, "but I do not know why he changed his mind".

On Thursday, Dan O'Mahoney, the UK's Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, will meet Ann Cornet, the prefet in charge of the region, as the Government seeks to persuade the French to turn round boats in the Channel and send them back to France.

Writing in The Telegraph, former border force chief Tony Smith said there needed to be a new international agreement with France for joint patrols to deter migrants by returning them to France wherever they were picked up. "Without this, we are going to see more deaths and more drownings," he warned.