Britain’s coastguard downgraded 999 calls from refugees seeking help as they headed to England days before the worst Channel disaster in decades, new internal documents reveal.
HM Coastguard potentially breached its own policy by categorizing 999 calls from passengers in distress on four small boats carrying 155 people as not in need of urgent rescue, according to analysis of incident logs obtained by THE Observer And Freedom investigation.
One of the many declassified calls involved a boat from which callers described “sick babies” on board. A coast guard helicopter found that half of the passengers did not have life jackets.
Coast Guard records of these incidents – chronicling small boat crossings reported four days before the November 24, 2021 tragedy that killed at least 27 migrants – do not say whether rescue boats were ever launched .
Labor MP Olivia Blake, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on migration, called for an investigation into the “extremely concerning” findings, amid wider concerns over the government’s continued refusal to offer safe routes to the majority of refugees.
This week, the official UK inquiry into the November 2021 English Channel mass drowning will finally publish its findings amid new claims that the victims’ families were left out of the process.
The victims included a pregnant woman and three children, most of them Iraqi Kurds, who drowned after their rubber dinghy capsized in dangerously cold waters while underway near Dunkirk.
The report from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) will for the first time disclose records from the UK coastguard detailing their emergency response to the tragedy, although documents from their French counterparts indicate a hesitant response in which coastguard officials two sides of the Channel lost crucial hours passing the buck. .
It is unclear whether the UK’s response to the mass drowning incident was also degraded, as reports relating to the tragedy were not released during the MAIB investigation.
However, new papers published today – leaked after a 10-month fight for freedom of information – raise concerns about the UK’s approach to small boat crossings before the tragedy.
The logs also document six other small boat reports on November 20 which were deemed by HM Coastguard to be of lower priority. Almost all of the 10 boats identified in the survey were in British waters, with the location of two stevedores difficult to call.
These revelations add to the concerns expressed during a previous investigation carried out by the Observer and Liberty Investigates showing how the Coast Guard “effectively ignored” reports of 19 migrant boats in the weeks before the November 2021 mass drowning.
Maritime experts say the latest documents raise new questions about violations of procedures and international law.
A former coastguard source, who requested anonymity, was “deeply saddened” by what she saw. An independent search and rescue consultant said there appeared to be a clear theme that some incidents involving migrant vessels in UK waters were being wrongly treated as less urgent and “closed” with “no information indicating the vessel or people were safe.”
A spokesperson for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which manages HM Coastguard, said “no vessels were abandoned” with air assets sweeping the Channel.
The MCA added: “All incidents in UK waters will be classified in accordance with international protocols and it would be inappropriate to comment further amid ongoing investigations. »
The papers raise further questions about the lack of resources in the period immediately preceding the 2021 disaster.
At times, according to separate documents, only three operational staff were on duty in the Dover Coastguard control room on November 20, handling at least 110 small boat reports. Staff must analyze reports and coordinate rescues while documenting actions taken and their reasoning.
Yet many of the 82 leaked logs were so rare that they gave experts the impression that staff may have been overwhelmed.
Labor MP Blake said the coastguard must have the resources it needs to respond appropriately to distress calls.
Maria Thomas of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, representing a survivor and the families of 18 people who died in the November 24 drownings, said the “extremely concerning” findings highlighted the need for a full and independent statutory inquiry once the MAIB report this week published.
“Families have been left out of the process for the past two years – they deserve answers,” she said.
Charity Care4Calais and the Joint Council for Immigrant Welfare (JCWI) said it was shocking and unacceptable that urgent calls, including those involving children, had been downgraded.
Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah, spokesperson for the JCWI, said: “The blame must be clearly placed where it lies: in the chain of government policies that force people to cross by boat in the first place while underfunding the guards. -ribs. »
Steve Smith, Managing Director of Care4Calais, said: “The downgrading of the calls is a blatant breach of Coastguard policy, where it is clearly stated unequivocally that babies are on board a boat in distress in the English Channel. , which raises serious questions about who authorized such a decision. .”
Coastguard policy states that all “migrant vessels” must be classified as being in “distress”, meaning they require “immediate assistance” if they are in UK waters.
In 2021, downgrading to the least serious “alert” category, where immediate rescue becomes non-mandatory, was authorized once staff gathered sufficient information on a list of 15 criteria, including whether passengers had requested assistance, the condition of the vessel and the availability of life jackets. and fuel to complete the journey.
The rules have since been tightened, limiting the circumstances in which degradation can take place.
“In less than a minute the situation on board these unsuitable boats can change, so decommissioning can be dangerous,” said Graham Warlow, a former coast guard surveillance official who has reviewed the files.
“It is not unreasonable to assume that changes to these guidelines following the tragedy may reflect concerns about the handling of the incident at the time.”
An incident identified by the documents began around 7:30 a.m. on November 20, 2021, when a wave of calls came in from a boat that was apparently carrying 25 people, including women and babies, who were suffering from the cold after passing five hours at sea.
“It’s too cold, there are ladies for sick babies (sic),” the caller reportedly said.
More than an hour later, Dover downgraded the incident to the “alert” phase after a helicopter spotted the boat – filled with 20 people, half of whom were wearing life jackets, and apparently not in road to reach Folkestone before six o’clock – and reported: “No one (is) in distress.”
Records suggest passengers made calls until 9:53 a.m., but no rescue attempts are recorded, nor is there any record of the vessel being monitored or passengers arriving safely.
The operators closed the incident, saying they were “glad to have been found” given the volume of traffic throughout the day.
Asked about the outcome of the incident, the MCA said there was “no SAR (search and rescue) requirement”.
However, the former senior coastguard official concluded that at least six of the 15 criteria for decommissioning were not met and said: “Based on the little evidence we have in the newspapers, I don’t see not that the (procedure) was followed in this case.
The boat should have been monitored until its occupants were sure of their safety. But the newspapers… are so poor that we cannot be sure that this has not been done, any more than we can.
Three other reports based on migrants’ calls for help resulted in an immediate non-urgent “monitoring” assessment. One such call came in at 6:28 a.m. from a boat carrying 45 people, including children, all without life jackets. The incident was never characterized as “distress.”
“Help, help, help,” the caller allegedly told the operator. “Fill (sic) with water – we die…we see Dover. »
No updates were recorded until nearly 10 hours later, when a coordinator marked the incident as over, writing: “No further information, (last known position) not known/is more valid. »
The papers also shed new light on an incident previously highlighted by Liberty Investigates, in which a passenger known as Amjad claimed that British and French call operators refused to rescue him after he ran out of fuel near the maritime border around 6 a.m.
The newly released logs reveal the French coordinates he shared via WhatsApp at 7:32 a.m. and again at 8:00 a.m. with their British counterparts, both of whom were in British waters.
However, it was only at 9:23 a.m. that the UK upgraded the incident from “surveillance” to “distress”, shortly before a French lifeboat recovered the boat following the intervention of charitable organisation.
The log contains no evidence of coordination between the two coast guards, as required under international law, beyond the initial report. The MCA said it assessed the report as having “no SAR requirements”.