Refugees crossing the Channel to the UK in small boats ask UK Coast Guard to review their procedures after claiming authorities routinely redirected them to French emergency services after making 999 calls in what they believe to be the British part of the English Channel.
Relatives and survivors of the mass tragedy in the English Channel where at least 27 people lost their lives on November 24 said repeated distress calls had been made to the French and British coast guards and the UK to them. had said to contact the French rescue services.
Dan O’Mahoney, the government underground threat commander, told the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee this month that he could not say for sure whether those on board called for help or not.
The Guardian has received testimonies from several refugees who have attempted to cross the Channel in small boats in recent weeks and months and who have made identical statements.
A group of refugees interviewed by the Guardian on October 18 in Calais had attempted to cross the Channel several hours earlier but had nearly drowned. They said they called the British Coast Guard, who told them to call the French Coast Guard. The latter finally rescued them and brought them back to Calais several hours after the departure of their frail boat.
Occupants of a small boat attempting to cross France to the UK on November 20, four days before the massive drowning, said they repeatedly called the French and English coast guards when their boat encountered difficulties in what they think is the British part. of the English Channel.
âThe English told us to phone the French even without asking for our GPS position,â said a near-drowning survivor. âWe called the French, they asked us for our GPS position and told us we were in British waters. No one came to help us – neither English nor French. Finally, we called the French organization Utopia 56 and told them our location. They called for French help, who came to help us and brought us back to Calais.
The refugee said it was his fourth attempt to cross the Channel. In the three previous attempts, French police had caught them on the beach and punctured their canoes with knives.
âI was so scared on the boat. When no one came to help us, I thought we were finished. Personally, I thought we were going to die, âhe told The Guardian. âThe British Coast Guard should not abandon us. They should save us when we tell them we think we are on the British side of the Channel. “
A spokesperson for Utopia 56 confirmed that passengers on the boat sent them a series of distress messages on November 20. He called on both governments to take their responsibilities at sea seriously.
A voicemail message to Utopia 56 said, âSir, we are still waiting. No one’s coming. We are really afraid that no one will come. Please try to send someone. A second voice can be heard saying, âPlease, please, please. “
A spokesperson for the Maritime Agency and the Coast Guard denied claims that occupants of boats in distress in the English Channel who made 999 calls were redirected to the French.
She said that as of November 24, 2021, the Coast Guard had received more than 90 alerts from the Channel region, including 999 emergency calls. âEvery call was answered, evaluated and dealt with. There are also no circumstances in which we would ask a caller to call the French authorities on our behalf, âadded the spokesperson.
One of the challenges of rescuing small boats in the world’s busiest seaway is the lack of clarity on the location of the sea border between the UK and France. This is not shown on Google Maps and is not reflected by telephone networks – when a telephone network switches from French to English in the middle of the English Channel, it is not necessarily at the maritime border.
Maria Thomas of Duncan Lewis’s lawyers also received similar reports that people believed to be stranded on the UK side of the Channel were told to contact the French.
She said: âThese allegations are extremely worrying and need to be fully investigated. The families of those who perished deserve a full and candid account of what happened, and it is obviously essential that there is full and transparent cooperation between the British and French authorities.
“Both sides have clear obligations when it comes to search and rescue, and the idea that a vessel in distress could simply bounce between operators is shocking.”