An inexperienced, under-resourced UK Coastguard provided with “scant information” from French authorities sent a search-and-rescue vessel to the wrong small boat, resulting in the worst maritime disaster in the Channel for over 30 years, a report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch has found.
At least 27 people are known to have died in the incident on 24 November 2021, with four people still missing, having waited more than 12 hours to be rescued.
Among the dead were a pregnant woman and three teenagers. In its long-awaited report following a two-year investigation, the branch said the mass drowning was a result of:
- Under-resourcing, with only three members of staff responding to distress calls that night. One was a trainee
- Confusion due to a high volume of simultaneous mayday calls from at least four boats, leading to conflicting information
- Challenges locating and distinguishing one boat from another and a search-and-rescue vessel attending the wrong scene
- Poor coordination with the French search-and-rescue team, which provided “limited information” to support an effective rescue mission
- Responders who were “hampered due to poor visibility”, with no aerial surveillance or capability to detect casualties in the water
Investigators found that the UK Coastguard was responding to distress calls from at least three other migrant boats on the night.
When Border Force cutter HM Valiant, following instructions from the coastguard service, arrived at the scene, it reported that “none were in the expected level of peril” and mistakenly “assumed that the first boat to be found was the stricken craft”.
The branch said this error was likely to have occurred because previous mayday calls from migrants had “turned out to be falsely exaggerated” and that this “habituation” may have caused Coastguard and Border Force responders to rationalise that this was another incident of “exaggerated distress”.
It went on to suggest that facilitators – or smugglers – routinely advised migrants to make “false” distress calls.
Despite identifying that the weather conditions would be likely to result in a high number of crossings, the coastguard failed to adequately resource the night watch, with only three members of the coastguard – one senior and two junior staff – on shift when the incident took place, well below the expected level. One of those responding to mayday calls was a trainee.
In an exclusive interview with The Independent last year, a member of the UK Coastguard said the unit had been overstretched and under-resourced in the days leading up to the drownings.
“We’d been working 20-hour days sometimes – really long periods with no breaks. Everybody was tired and frustrated. You can see people were fractious and snapping at each other. You have to make quick decisions and yeah, of course, mistakes get made, when you’re working under that level of pressure,” they said.
Poor coordination and communication with the French authorities also contributed to the deaths, investigators found. Call records released to lawyers by the French authorities last year showed that the responsibility had been repeatedly passed between the two authorities. On at least one occasion, the UK Coastguard told migrants to stop calling; others were told to hang up and call the French coastguard because they were not in British waters.
In its report, the branch said it had had “scant information” from the French authorities and had not been granted access to any information about the actions taken by the French Gris-Nez coastguard on the night. Nor had it been allowed to examine the boat or equipment from the incident.
Mustafa Mina, whose son Zanyar went missing in the incident, has told The Independent the pain of not knowing what happened was “indescribable”, adding that it had been “every parent’s worst nightmare”. He and Zana Mohammed, whose brother Twana also went missing that night, are calling for a full public statutory inquiry into what happened.
“We think the MAIB needs to step up and say ‘This person neglected their responsibility,’” said Mr Mohammed. “We believe the evidence is there: the boat was in British waters. The technology does not lie.
“They had a duty of care and they neglected their responsibilities. That is a breach of international law,” said Mr Mina.
The families of those who died or went missing have also called for information into Harem Ahmed Abwbaker, the smuggler who facilitated the crossing, who was extradited to France in the summer, where he will stand trial.
Maria Thomas, a solicitor from Duncan Lewis, who is representing the victim’s families said that the report had “failed to investigate potential systemic failings during the incident, which may have contributed to the scale of the accident and give rise to a risk of loss of life in the future”.
She added that the claim in the report that those onboard small boats made repeated calls for rescue which were found to be “exaggerated or false” was “an unacceptable attempt to justify complacency and transfer responsibility of HM Coastguard’s failure to those seeking rescue”.
Andrew Moll, chief inspector of marine accidents, said: “In November 2021, the UK’s response to the migrant crisis was still evolving and although the need for enhancements had been identified, remedial action was still in hand. The report acknowledges that significant changes have been made since the accident.
“However, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Border Force are recommended to develop procedures to ensure effective surveillance of the Dover Strait is possible when aviation assets are unavailable.
“A recommendation is also made to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to work with French authorities to improve the transfer of information between UK and French Coastguard agencies during migrant crossing events.”
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