French authorities told drowning migrants they were in British waters and to call 999 during the worst disaster of its kind in the English Channel, documents have revealed.
A dossier of evidence compiled by lawyers acting for the families of 32 people who died when their dinghy sank last November shows passengers made desperate calls for help for more than two hours.
Logs published by the Le Monde newspaper indicate that they tried to contact both French and English rescue services, but were not rescued before the captain of a private boat reported bodies floating in the water in the strait of Calais – 12 hours after the first mayday call on 24 November 2021.
The account only covers the response by French authorities, because logs and other evidence from the British coastguard are subject to a separate investigation that has not yet published its findings.
The first call to the French coastguard was recorded at 1.51am local time, when a passenger stayed on the phone for 14 minutes begging for help for more than 30 people on board the inflatable boat.
“We need help, if you please, help us,” the man was recorded saying.
Minutes later, a telephone conversation between British and French authorities reportedly indicated that the boat was in French waters around half a mile from the nautical border.
Migrants continued to call for help, but at 2.33am logs show that French authorities instructed them to call 999 because they were in British waters at that point.
They were given the same message in further calls before the boat is believed to have overturned around 3am.
Half an hour later, logs compiled by French lawyers show that a survivor on the phone to French authorities said people were in the water but was told: “Yes, but you are in English waters.”
Records show that shortly after 4am, British authorities told their French counterparts that they had received a distress call but found nothing at the reported location of the boat.
French authorities formally closed their operation at around 4.30am after calls ceased and a French fisherman found the victims’ bodies the next day.
Two people survived, 27 bodies were recovered – including six women and a child – while three people reported to have been on the dinghy were never found.
Zana Mamand Mohammad, the brother of one of the victims, said he had “tried non-stop” to find out what happened.
“I still stare at my phone hoping for a message or call from you,” a statement added.
“I am doing my best to obtain justice for you and your friends. If you knew how we have passed this past year you would never have made that journey.”
The French dossier does not include call logs from the British side, because they are subject to a separate probe by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB).
The body’s investigation does not assign blame or legal liability for fatal disasters, but aims to make recommendations to improve safety and prevent future accidents.
A spokesperson said: “The investigation into the presumed sinking of a migrant boat while attempting to cross the channel last November is still ongoing.”
The Care4Calais charity said there were “no answers” for victims’ families almost a year on from the tragedy, which was followed by record numbers of dangerous crossings.
“If we don’t learn lessons more people will die,” founder Claire Moseley told The Independent.
“Even though we’ve only got one side of the story it shows that the boat did reach British waters.”
Government ministers used the tragedy to garner support for a range of measures, including laws criminalising asylum seekers, that they said would prevent deaths by reducing Channel crossings.
But the number of small boats launching from France has continued to reach new records, and critics have questioned whether a new deal, including £63m of British funding for increased security and other measures, will work.
With conditions worsening as winter closes in, several migrant boats made distress calls over the weekend, and three people were pulled from the sea alive by a pleasure boat near Calais on Sunday.
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