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Read harrowing call logs of migrants pleading for help on sinking boat

Rescuers passed the buck or gave false reassurances for at least two hours

Jane Dalton
Wednesday 23 November 2022 20:18 GMT
RNLI footage captures 'reality' of migrant rescues in channel

Screams were heard in the background of phone calls as migrants repeatedly contacted French and British authorities to plead for help during the worst Channel disaster in three decades.

Rescuers passed the buck or gave false reassurances for at least two hours as the tragedy unfolded on 24 November last year, in which it’s thought at least 27 men, women and children drowned. Five bodies are still missing.

Logs of the calls, published as part of the French investigation into the tragedy, reveal how asylum-seekers on a stricken dinghy heading for Dover spoke to French coastguards but were told to phone 999 as they were thought to be in English waters.

The logs, published by France’s Le Monde newspaper, indicate that rescuers did not go to help until the captain of a private boat reported bodies floating in the water - 12 hours after the first mayday call.

These are the calls as revealed by the logs:

1.51am: A migrant calls French authorities, indicating there are 33 people needing help on board a boat. The communication lasts nearly 14 minutes. He begs: “Please please! … We need help, if you please. Help us if you please.” At the end of the call, the operator says she has received his location and will send help.

2.06am: Telephone conversation between the English and French authorities indicates the position of the boat, which is now in French waters and 0.6 nautical miles from English waters.

2.10am: The boat again reports its location by WhatsApp, which still locates it in French waters. The people on board continue to call the authorities.

2.33am: A migrant sends a position again to the French authorities, who reply to say to call 999 as they are in English waters.

2.45am: A passenger contacts the French authorities and asks for assistance.  Screams are heard in the background. The coastguard tells him the boat is in English waters and they should contact 999.

2.43-4.22am: The migrants call the French authorities 15 times in vain.

2.46am: A passenger calls the French authorities and asks for help and the call is cut off.

3am: The boat overturns, spilling all passengers into the water. Some begin to drown because of the waves. Over time, others resign themselves to letting go as they give in to the cold.

3.31am: One person calls the French authorities, saying they are literally “in the water”. The authorities reply: “Yes, but you are in English waters, Sir.”

3.44am: A shipwrecked person contacts the French authorities again and calls for help. The French say they are in English waters and to call 999. The migrant says he cannot call them and is told “they have already been informed. They are on their way”. Eventually the call is cut off.

4.08am: The English authorities ring the French coastguard to say they have received a distress call from a small boat but had found nothing at that location. The French thank them for their call and say their rescue vessel is already on another operation.

4.09am: A passenger contacts French authorities and asks for help. The rescuer replies that “we have to wait” and that a lifeboat will “arrive in a few minutes”.

Email exchanges between the French and British indicate that the boat arrived in English waters at 2.30am. The UK coastguard says in another email that it contacted a passenger and that a French phone tone had revealed that the boat was in French waters.

4.34am: French authorities “close the operation”, considering that there is no longer any distress given the cessation of calls for help and the probable intervention of the British rescue services.

2pm: Nine hours later, a French fisherman spots bodies in the water and raises the alarm. When the French coastguard finally arrives they find only two survivors. They recover 27 bodies, including those of six women and a girl.

A vigil will be held to mark the anniversary of the tragedy on Thursday outside Westminster Abbey in London.

Weyman Bennett, co-convener of the Stand Up To Racism group, said: “The vast majority of people will be absolutely horrified to hear the harrowing, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute account of what happened in the last hours of 32 people’s lives.

“It was the cold, dead hand of the French and British authorities who left those poor people to perish in the Channel.”

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