Yet, Aljazeera.net has learned that, two weeks on, no bodies have been identified because Lancashire police will not waive immigration checks to allow the families of the dead to come forward.

According to Min Quan, a Chinese human rights and advocacy group, a senior detective involved in the investigation has told them no guarantees will be offered to the families of those who died.

"We understand that a lot of the relatives of the dead are asylum seekers or failed asylum seekers," Bobby Chan, a lawyer for Min Quan told Aljazeera.net.

"If the police are going to investigate the immigration status of these people, then I don't think anyone will come forward to identify the bodies and they will be left there for months on end.

"It is causing a lot of pain and anger in the Chinese community.

"People are very frustrated because, even in China, no one has yet been informed that their family members are among the dead," Chan added.

Call to China

"I am in great danger. I am up to my chest in water. Maybe I am going to die. It's a tiny mistake by my boss. He mistook the time. He should have called us back an hour ago. Tell the family to pray for me. It's too close. I am dying"

Guo Binglong,
Chinese cockle picker

In the days following the deaths, much media attention was focused on a recording of one man, thought to be 30-year-old Guo Binglong, who made a heart-breaking cell phone call to his wife in China as the waves lapped around him.

He told her: "I am in great danger. I am up to my chest in water. Maybe I am going to die.

"It's a tiny mistake by my boss. He mistook the time. He should have called us back an hour ago. Tell the family to pray for me. It's too close. I am dying."

Yet, Chan confirmed, "Even that family told us they had not been informed whether he was one of the 20 dead or not."

"This is the same problem we had with the Dover families, when 58 Chinese people died while they were being smuggled into this country two years ago," he said.

"It took us weeks to negotiate an agreement with the police there not to scrutinise the relatives' immigration status and it looks like it will be the same with the Lancashire police."

Identifying the dead

A spokeswoman for the Lancashire force told Aljazeera.net the police were making good progress on identifying the dead.

"Although we haven't named anyone publicly, we think we possibly have identities for 12 people," she said, "but we're not certain."

"We are trying to match some names we have been given by the Immigration Service with bodies, but we have a total of eight unknowns at the moment."

She said the final toll could still rise.

"We have 20 bodies but we are not certain if that will be the final figure. It could be more because we simply don't know how many people were out there that night."

Working conditions

The dead Chinese cockle pickers
were largely illegal workers

The death of the cocklers provoked a debate in the UK about the conditions forced upon foreign workers in the country.

Asylum seekers, for example, are prevented from working legally or taking state benefits while their claims are being assessed.

Many turn to the black market to survive. The cocklers in Morecambe Bay had been earning about £32 ($58) a day collecting shellfish for intermediaries who then sold them on to a Spanish multinational.

But the tides at Morecambe Bay are notoriously treacherous, the work appears to have been unregulated, and a dispute with English workers might have forced the Chinese cocklers to go out while it was still dark.

New regulations

One result of the tragedy is that a bill aiming to tackle the gang masters who hire foreign labourers is due before parliament on 27 February.

"There is something ironic in the fact that one of the dead could call his family in China to tell them he was drowning but nobody was able to call the lifeguard half a mile away to rescue them"

Jeremy Corbyn,
Labour MP

But Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn has revealed to Aljazeera.net he is also drafting an early day motion that will propose measures to prevent the exploitation of asylum seekers and illegal migrants, many of whom cannot speak English.

"There is something ironic in the fact that one of the dead could call his family in China to tell them he was drowning, but nobody was able to call the lifeguard half a mile away to rescue them," he said. 

"My suggestion is that we should have an amnesty for those working illegally in Britain so that they can get health and safety protection and a minimum wage.

"An awful lot of the British economy depends on people who are working illegally and it is simply immoral that we - as a society – should benefit from their work, without offering them any kind of legal protection," Corbyn said.

Pressure on Blair

Chan believes government legislation on asylum seekers is as much a cause of the tragedy as the "triads and gang masters" so beloved of tabloid headlines.

Blair's tough line on immigrants
is coming under fire

"There is no other way for these people to survive than to work in these dangerous industries," he said.

"Tragedies like Dover and now Morecambe only happen because of their tight immigration and benefit policies. They should rethink them."

But is it likely that a prime minister so set on appearing tough on immigration would change tack over this issue? Corbyn thinks it is not impossible. "He is going to have to do something," he said.

"He can't just go on assuming that the entire population supports repressive measures against people who are victims.

"Many people are just shocked and appalled by the lack of humanity in our rules today."