Four people who died when a small boat capsized in the Channel earlier this month are believed to be of Afghan and Senegalese heritage, an inquest into their deaths has heard.
The four men’s identities have not yet been confirmed, the coroner’s court in Maidstone, Kent, was told on Friday.
The first male, believed to be Afghan, was confirmed dead at 6.22am on 14 December. The second, believed to be Senegalese, was confirmed dead at 6.25am, the third, believed to be Senegalese, at 8.30am and the fourth, believed to be Afghan, at 11.24am. All four deaths were found to be consistent with drowning.
Of the 39 survivors, a dozen were unaccompanied children who were taken into care by Kent county council. Two asylum seekers were airlifted to hospital after experiencing freezing conditions in the water during the early hours. On the day the dinghy capsized, 401 people crossed the Channel in eight boats.
Many of the survivors were taken first to the Western Jet Foil facility in Dover for medical checks and then spent three days at Manston reception centre in Ramsgate, where initial checks are carried out on people arriving on small boats.
The site has been the subject of various controversies including outbreaks of diphtheria and scabies, drug use by guards, severe overcrowding, allegations of assaults, and some people dumped in central London after being discharged from the site.
A spokesperson for Soas Detainee Support Group, which campaigns against detention of small boat arrivals at Manston, said: “Manston is a completely inappropriate place to hold people who have just crossed the Channel and witnessed four of their fellow passengers die in the cold waters. There is copious evidence from politicians, inspectors and ex-detainees themselves that the facility is not fit for human habitation and is not a safe place for people seeking safety and sanctuary.”
The area coroner for central and south-east Kent Katrina Hepburn opened the inquest into the four deaths by reading out a report from DI Ross Gurden from Kent police. He said the dinghy had been recovered and “was wholly unsuitable to make the crossing”.
Following the drownings a mass fatality coordination group was convened.
The death toll could have been higher had it not been for the efforts of the crew of the fishing trawler Arcturus, who discovered the people clinging to inflatable vessels in the icy waters.
“It was like something out of a second world war movie, there were people in the water everywhere, screaming,” the boat’s skipper, Raymond Strachan, told Sky News.
The crew are believed to have saved 31 of the 39 people rescued.
The tragedy came just over a year after at least 27 people drowned when their boat capsized in one of the deadliest accidents in the Channel in recent years.
The number of migrants crossing the Channel has increased sharply during 2022. More than 45,000 people have made the crossing so far this year, compared with 28,526 for all of 2021 and 8,404 in 2020, according to government figures.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “People rescued from this tragic incident were treated by medical specialists immediately after landing. Manston functions to process asylum seekers securely and has 24/7 facilities with trained medical staff. We ensure the safety and security of those in our care before they are moved on to alternative accommodation.”
Kent police have launched a criminal investigation into the deaths. After opening the inquests, the coroner suspended proceedings because criminal charges may be brought in relation to the four deaths.