‘Horror beyond words’: how Channel distress calls were ‘ignored’ 19 times before 2021 disaster

The ObserverImmigration and asylum

Investigation reveals that understaffed Dover control room was overwhelmed by calls from people in trouble before 27 died at sea

 Read more: UK coastguard ‘left Channel migrants adrift’

Aaron Walawalkar, Eleanor Rose and Mark TownsendSat 29 Apr 2023

On the afternoon of 3 November 2021, a woman called Hampshire police. Her brother was crossing the Channel in a small boat that day, she said via a translator. But something awful had just happened. Twenty minutes earlier he’d texted to say that smugglers had begun shoving passengers overboard. “Loads had been kicked off and were in the water”, fighting for their lives in the treacherous currents of the world’s busiest shipping lane.

Police passed the details to HM Coastguard and at 4.57pm an operator flagged the incident, according to internal logs obtained by the Observer and Liberty Investigates.

“It’s almost the dictionary definition of a distress incident, especially given cold water temperatures,” said a former senior coastguard officer who examined the logs. “Search and rescue action should be commenced without delay.”

Yet the documents show no such action took place. For more than three hours, nothing appears in the log until – at 8.23pm – a mission coordinator concluded the incident was happening in French waters.

International law dictates that states take initial responsibility for any incident reported to them, even if outside their waters, until handover to another jurisdiction is confirmed.

There is no evidence in the logs, obtained under a freedom of information request, that UK operators ever tried to contact French authorities. Staff closed the incident “pending further information”.

Three weeks later, in the early hours of 24 November, a dinghy sank in the same stretch of water, killing at least 27 people – the worst tragedy in the Channel in decades.

Records disclosed to French lawyers showed passengers had made calls for assistance to authorities on both sides of the Channel. No help arrived. Precisely what unfolded that night is under investigation by the the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), with UK logs chronicling the disaster still secret.

However, documents obtained by the Observer and Liberty Investigates offer a glimpse inside HM Coastguard in the weeks before the tragedy.

The evidence suggests that 440 people were left to their fates as the authorities failed to send help to 19 reports of small boats in danger in UK waters on four separate days.

Internal logs from 3 November indicate that no rescue was sent to five reported small boats carrying a total of 112 people. That does not include the incident where the man had texted his sister to say passengers were being kicked overboard. It’s not known if he was rescued.

An internal database – cross-referenced with ship-tracking data and analysed by experts – suggests HM Coastguard “effectively ignored” at least 14 more boats carrying 328 people on 11, 16 and 20 November.https://interactive.guim.co.uk/uploader/embed/2023/04/migrant-boatsmap/giv-13425UsaukMTZO0tL/

Records indicate that coastguard staff were “overwhelmed” as the numbers of operators on shift in the Dover control room fell below internal targets. Junior officers tackled record numbers of distress calls with “very little apparent leadership and direction”, according to the former senior coastguard who reviewed the logs.

“No one should be left unaided as their boat fills with water in one of the busiest, and most surveilled, stretches of water in the world,” said Mary Atkinson of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI).

“The UK clearly has the resources to provide sea rescue for those in need, so to hear that people’s calls for help were repeatedly ignored is heartbreaking.”

Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “We witnessed first-hand the utter devastation suffered by families of the victims of the 21 November tragedy. To hear that other small boats in distress may have effectively been ignored, and more lives put at risk, is a horror beyond words.”

Jane Grimshaw, co-founder of the group Hastings Supports Refugees, remembers the first time she greeted a small boat landing in summer 2021. A floodlit column of passengers trudged up Pett Level beach, Sussex, some with babies. They looked exhausted, “like a platoon of soldiers returning from war”, she says.

The landings weren’t new. In 2018, the then home secretary Sajid Javid declared them a “major incident”.

The following year, the foreign affairs committee warned the UK’s plans to close down “robust and accessible legal routes” could force more to make the dangerous crossing.

The number kept rising. In July 2020, 99 small boats were detected in the Channel; in July 2021, it rose to 130.

Grimshaw coordinated volunteers to meet the boats with food, clothes and a friendly face. The response by the coastguard, Border Force and police seemed chaotic, she says.

Boats were held offshore for hours while officials assembled to meet them. “Nobody knew what they were doing. It was like a disaster zone.”

Across the Channel, the process for crossings was, by comparison, seemingly well-oiled.

Passengers congregated on French beaches in darkness, when calm conditions were forecast. Sometimes, however, there weren’t enough lifejackets; boats were overcrowded or unseaworthy. If things went awry, they were told to call the police.

Under a 1979 convention, states are responsible for the search and rescue of vessels in distress, regardless of who they are or why they are there.

Due to the inherent risks of small boat crossings, the UK coastguard announced in 2019 it would treat all reports as distress incidents: staff should send rescue vessels. But some people landing were telling Grimshaw they had been at sea for 18 hours.They had not been promptly rescued, she believes. “I get it – on really busy days, there aren’t enough boats to pick everybody up [immediately] – but it was happening too often,” she says.

By November, the water was colder; the situation increasingly untenable. “We all knew that what happened on the 24 November was going to happen. It was inevitable.”

Carim*, 28, from Syria, set off in a small boat on 16 November but ran out of fuel halfway. He called HM Coastguard several times, he says, but was told other boats with women and children were prioritised. For up to three hours he waited as their dinghy deflated. A boat arrived just in time. “There was a big wave coming … they positioned their boat behind us, or it would have turned [us] over,” he says.

Sobhan Ahmadi, 25, and Matin Sohrabi, 24, from Iran, travelled the same day as Carim.Smugglers struggled for half an hour to start the motor, they recall – but pressed passengers aboard anyway. In the middle of the Channel, the boat’s stalling engine struggled against rough waves. One passenger called British authorities for assistance as others waved their lifejackets to stay visible, terrified a ferry would mow them down. The caller was seasick and struggled to send the operator their location from his phone, resorting instead to describing the ships around him.

Help arrived around three hours later. By then, passengers had all but lost hope, according to Ahmadi. “I was crying so hard,” Sohrabi adds. “I considered myself dead.”

Neither was aware that Dover’s coastguards were coping with one of their busiest ever shifts. Their records indicate that at least 34 boats were intercepted in the Channel on 16 November, eclipsing the previous record of 32 set five days earlier.

In the Dover control room, up to five operators worked daytime shifts that month, with fewer at night. In the early hours of 24 November, as disaster unfolded, a log shows two operational staff on search and rescue duties – below the agency’s target of three. One was still a trainee.

Although officers can help remotely from other control rooms, documents indicate capacity across the network was also low. A 2013 government report devised during the coastguard’s last big restructure recommended 50 to 60 operators in the daytime during “low to medium” business, and 70 to 80 during peak demand.

During the day in November 2021, a document shows the number of staff on duty across the coastguard network ranged from 39 to 45.

A number of FoI requests were submitted to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) for further records. Most were refused, relying partly on an exemption for “vexatious” requests. Only after reporters had complained to the information commissioner did the agency release the 3 November logs.

The “Vision” logs, intended as a comprehensive account of actions taken, reveal Dover operators handled 16 of 62 reports of small boats received that day.

The first came at 3.40am, when police told the coastguard of a vessel carrying young children struggling against large waves. “SOME HAVE LIFEJACKETS SOME DONT,” the log states.skip past newsletter promotion

Over an hour later, at 4.52am, a senior officer speculates that the report could be a duplicate of another incident already being dealt with.


Their hunch was wrong. An update 12 hours later revealed that this was a completely different boat. Twenty passengers were recovered, though it’s not clear when or how.

The ex-coastguard, who requested anonymity, said that despite being flagged as a distress incident, they didn’t see “any evidence” of it being treated as one.

In a second case at 5.11am, Kent police informed the coastguard that a boat carrying 32 people had lost power. At 7.20am, the log suggests police were still receiving calls about it. However, there’s no update in the log until 12 hours later – 7.15pm – when officers guessed the boat could have been one of several that by now had landed unaided.

“It is not clear whether anyone actually established [these passengers’] safety,” the former senior coastguard observed.

In a later incident at 8.29am, police warned the coastguard of another boat in distress but there was no substantive update until 00.52am the next day, when a member of coastguard staff confirmed the incident couldn’t be attributed to any other case, but closed it regardless. The log contains no record of what happened to the 13 people on board.

That day – three weeks before the mass drowning – internal documents suggest 112 people were left to their fates across five incidents.

“The operations are largely being conducted by [junior staff] with very little apparent leadership,” said the former coastguard. The close supervision required to prevent loss of life “is not evident”.

The MCA rejected reporters’ requests for Vision records from other dates, but disclosed an internal spreadsheet recording basic details of each reported small boat crossing.

This suggests that on the busiest dates for Channel crossings in the weeks before the disaster – 11, 16 and 20 November – there were at least 14 instances where the coordinates of a small boat were logged, but no rescue launched.

In these cases, the “assets tasked” column of the spreadsheet was left blank. By cross-referencing coordinates with data from ship-tracking site Marine Traffic, reporters confirmed no rescue boat belonging to the coastguard, Border Force or RNLI came within one nautical mile of the reports within four hours.

In four of these cases reconnaissance planes and drones entered the airspace nearby, but these aircraft are incapable of providing direct assistance to those aboard small boats.

Five maritime expertsincluding those with inside knowledge of Border Force and UK coastguard operations confirmed that, in the absence of any explanation from the MCA, it is reasonable to conclude that no help was sent.

The agency refused requests for an interview with HM Coastguard director Claire Hughes. A spokesperson said while their “thoughts remain” with bereaved relatives from the November 2021 tragedy, it would be inappropriate to comment further.

They cited ongoing investigations, including an MAIB inquiry into the disaster. The response makes it impossible to explain why no rescue was sent for all of the cases. Experts said one obvious explanation would be a lack of resources.

Paul Chamberlain, a search-and-rescue expert with experience of mass casualty incidents in the Mediterranean, said: “This [data] clearly shows they are overwhelmed.”

The investigation also tracked down an individual on board one of the vessels left drifting without help. Amjad*, from Iraq, and 22 others were stranded in the Channel at 6am on 20 November, after their dinghy had run out of fuel.

He called 999, he says, but the UK coastguard refused to send help on the basis that he was in French waters. However, reporters have confirmed the coordinates recorded in the UK coastguard spreadsheet at 8am for Amjad’s boat were, in fact, on the British side of the sea border.

The 22-year-old then called the French coastguard. They refused to come out, explaining he was in British waters. Finally, he contacted the Utopia 56 organisation, which called French authorities on his behalf and secured his rescue at about 10am – four hours after his initial distress call – and by which time his boat appears to have drifted back to French waters.

In a voice note sent while waiting, he says: “Sir, we called all the numbers, they don’t answer. I don’t know what is the problem with them, what is wrong with them. They don’t want to answer us, they [are] really kidding us.” A second voice begs: “Please, yalla [come on], please.”

Four days later, a dinghy carrying 34 men, women and children capsized not far from where Amjad was rescued. That night, passengers had repeatedly called both French and UK authorities; both stand accused of passing the buck between them in the chaotic hours that followed.

The UK call logs remain closely guarded, but records released by French lawyers reveal screams in the background as passengers begged for help. An interim MAIB report has confirmed that, as in Amjad’s case, the dinghy reached British waters.

Most of its passengers weren’t as lucky as Amjad. French logs suggest that when the boat overturned at 3am, some drowned immediately. Others succumbed to the cold. Rescuers arrived the following afternoon, only after a private vessel had reported bodies in the water. So far, 27 have been recovered. Four are missing. The full MAIB report is due this summer.

The coastguard has since made changes; hiring temporary call handlers and revising guidance. Yet problems remain. In December 2022, another four people died in the Channel when a dinghy began to sink.

FRANCE-BRITAIN-MIGRANTS-ACCIDENT<br>This photograph taken on November 24, 2021 shows a French volunteer sea rescue organisation Societe Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer (SNSM) boat carrying bodies of migrants arriving at Calais harbour after 27 migrants died in the sinking of their boat off the coast of Calais. (Photo by FRANCOIS LO PRESTI / AFP) (Photo by FRANCOIS LO PRESTI/AFP via Getty Images)

This newspaper’s joint investigation has examined 19 incidents in which more than 400 people were left adrift. It is not known whether all of them survived.

An abandoned life jacket on the beach after a group of migrants left on an inflatable dinghy to cross the  Channel in Wimereux in 2021.

Ambiguity also clouds the fate of Twana Mamand, an 18-year-old from northern Iraq who was on board the boat on 24 November and whose body is among those never found. Calling for the coastguard to be better resourced, his brother believes the Home Office’s approach to Channel crossings has left officials with blood on their hands.

Speaking from Iraqi Kurdistan, he said: “British officials have failed to save the lives many times, even though they had location of the smuggled asylum seekers. They intentionally left my brother and his friends to drown.”



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