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Revealed: Coastguard failures in run-up to Channel migrant drowning disaster

ANDBritain’s overburdened coastguard team, working up to 20 hours a day, made mistakes during the search and rescue operation in the wake of a massive drowning tragedy in the English Channel a year ago, a source has said Independent.

At least 27 people died on November 24, 2021, and five bodies are still missing.

It took 12 hours for the British and French coastguards to respond after the initial Mayday call, with authorities arguing over who was responsible. By the time rescue ships and planes arrived on the scene, all but two passengers had drowned and died from exposure.

Speaking for the first time about the conditions leading up to last year’s events, a source at HM Coastguard said staff were working particularly long shifts, often non-stop, and were stretched to the limit.

“No one comes to work with the intention of letting people die, but mistakes are made in extremely difficult circumstances,” the source said.

“Yes, 27 people died, but more than 27,000 survived. I would assume a success rate of 0.1% survival. We will never be able to save everyone – no emergency service in the world can say that.

Remains of the boat in which at least 27 migrants drowned while attempting to cross the English Channel on November 24

(Handouts via Sky)

“Sometimes we worked 20 hours a day – really long periods without breaks. Everyone was tired and frustrated. You can see that people were nervous and growled at each other.

“You have to make quick decisions and yes, of course, mistakes are made when you’re working under that kind of pressure.”

The revelations came as charities warned it was only a matter of time before similar deaths occurred in the English Channel unless safe routes were created by the government.

Call records made available to lawyers by the French authorities as part of an ongoing investigation showed that the first distress call to the French coastguard was registered shortly before 02:15. The boat capsized around 03:15.

Soon after, at 03:30, a passenger reported that part of the party was in the water. The French authorities replied, “Yes, but you are in English waters, sir.”

Those on board made more than twenty distress calls between 03:40 and 07:30 sunrise. Around 2:00 p.m., emergency services arrived at the scene, and all but two of the group drowned or died from exposure.

Overnight, the British Coast Guard, which is responsible for recording distress calls and coordinating search and rescue missions in the English Channel, continued to deny that the dinghy was in British waters, repeatedly urging passengers to call the French Coast Guard. Records from France show the boat entered British waters at 02:30.

On the night of November 24, 2021. Independent understands that ten members of the Coast Guard were in the Dover control room handling the calls.

The commander was a naval tactical commander, and search mission coordinators deciphered small boat locations, tides, and weather conditions.

At around 02:45, an exchange of emails between French and British authorities shows that the British Coast Guard apparently tried to call one of the passengers but picked up a French dial tone. They were said to have concluded that the boat was not their responsibility as it was probably still in French waters.

The map shows the approximate positions of calls for help sent by migrants

(International MarSAR)

Steven Martin of Channel Rescue, a charity that monitors marine activity, followed the development of the incident, receiving screenshots from people aboard the sinking dinghy, with many sharing their live location on What’s App to show they were in UK waters.

Martin is now involved in the ongoing marine casualty investigation and has provided lawyers with extensive evidence that the French and British coastguards were aware of the Mayday calls, but twelve hours elapsed between the first distress call and the rescue ship’s arrival on the scene.

“It was incredibly disturbing to watch what was going on and no one was responding,” he said. “We were like, ‘What the hell is going on here? How did we get notified that there were people in the water but no operation was started?

“They [the French and British coastguards] he shouldn’t have been arguing over who would react when it was obvious people were drowning. It still – a year later – drives me mad.”

“Without doubt, there will be another mass event in the English Channel,” added Martin. “Tragedies like this are a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’. Incidents will continue to occur unless this government takes action to create safe passages. We need a wholesale change in the way it’s done.”

French volunteer sea rescue boat carrying the bodies of migrants arrives at the port of Calais


Search and Rescue expert Matthew Schanck said capacity and unsuitable vessels were the main issues that needed to be addressed for the UK Coast Guard to operate more efficiently.

“We need more search and rescue vessels in the English Channel. It is not fair for the Coast Guard to rely on volunteers, Border Patrol vessels and chartered wind farm boats that are not built or equipped for this purpose. The government needs to start investing in resources – land-based resources such as call handlers, helicopters and more appropriate search and rescue boats on the water.”

He added: “We can’t just bury our heads in the sand and hope things get better.”

A year later, the Coast Guard says it is awaiting the outcome of its ongoing investigation into the marine accident. Until then, no further investigation will take place.

“We’re not playing roulette with people’s lives,” said a Coast Guard informant. “Every time a distress call comes in, we act on the information we have. Very often we receive a call lasting 20 seconds and we must base our actions on these parameters. Sometimes there can be 40 people on a boat and we will get 30,999 calls from that one boat. That’s a lot of information to compare and check.

“We always ask ourselves: were we acting on the information we had at the time?” We have to constantly adapt, improve and change our tactics. Is it perfect? Not. But hearing the calls coming in every day – believe me, it takes a toll on you. We are on the front lines of this crisis and we are making it work, more out of good will.”

Protesters demonstrate against the UK government’s immigration and border control policies outside the Home Office following the deaths of migrants


Martin says the fault lies with the government, which has not done enough to address systemic problems in managing the increasing number of small boat arrivals.

“The channel is now more militarized than last year at this time. Now the English Channel is patrolled by warships that do not act as search and rescue vessels – they cannot pick up people if they are in the water.

“And the Navy is there but never wanted to be involved – they had concerns because the mission had no clear goals, objectives or end date, so they weren’t sure what they were doing. It’s convenient for the government – they can say they brought in the navy, so they act, but they don’t really do anything. There is still a long way to go before solving the underlying problems.”

A government spokesman said: “Our thoughts are with the families of all those who lost their lives in the tragic incident last November.

“HM Coastguard’s primary role is to save lives at sea by responding to any person in distress.

“As is standard practice in these circumstances, the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch is conducting a safety investigation focusing on the emergency response to the incident with which HM Coastguard and the Home Office are fully cooperating. It would be inappropriate to comment further during the investigation.”


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