Tragic migrant boat sank in French waters, says UK as it denies ignoring mayday calls

Officer says many vessels were in the Channel calling for help at the same time

People gather on Folkestone beach on England's south coast to remember the migrants whose boat sank as they tried to get to Britain from France.  Reuters
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The migrant boat that sank in the English Channel killing 27 people was in French waters when the tragedy happened, a UK parliamentary hearing heard.

Britain had been criticised for failing to respond to mayday calls from the vessel, but the officer in charge said the coastguard had received many calls that day from other migrant vessels also in the area.

Dan O’Mahoney, Britain’s clandestine Channel threat commander, said he was unable to confirm whether one of the calls was from the stricken vessel.

“I can’t tell you with any certainty whether we definitely received a call from that boat or not,” he said. He added that coastguard was trying to find out.

“The French authorities alerted us to the presence of that boat … at which point it was well within French territorial waters,” said Mr O'Mahoney.

“It may never be possible to say with absolute accuracy whether that boat was in UK waters or French waters prior to that.”

Survivor Mohammed Ibrahim Zada, a Kurdish migrant from Iran, has accused both France and Britain of ignoring the passengers' pleas for help when their boat began taking on water.

“We called the French police and asked them to help us,’’ Mr Zada told Kurdish media network Rudaw.

“We sent our location to the French police, and they said, ‘You are in British waters’. So, we were inside British waters and called the British police for help, but they said, ‘Call the French police’.’’

The UK's Joint Committee on Human Rights, a cross-party panel that includes members from both houses of Parliament, was hearing evidence on Wednesday surrounding the incident.

The French maritime agency has also expressed surprise at the accusations it ignored calls. It said it issued an immediate mayday relay call to all boats in the area as soon as it heard about the sinking boat from a nearby fishing vessel.

The agency's spokesman also dismissed the notion that authorities passed the buck, insisting that French and British authorities co-operate all the time to help vessels experiencing trouble of various kinds in the English Channel.

“We work together almost daily,” including on joint operations in each other's waters, the spokesman said.

“We have no difficulty in co-ordination.”

More than 25,000 people have reached Britain on small boats this year, up from 8,500 in 2020 and 300 in 2018, increasing pressure on the UK government to intervene.

Following the evidence, the committee has criticised government plans to deter migrants and refugees from trying to reach Britain in small boats, saying the measures would endanger lives without stopping people embarking on the dangerous journeys.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed legislation that would give authorities patrolling the Channel the power to turn away boats carrying migrants.

Families of migrants who died crossing English Channel speak out

Families of migrants who died crossing English Channel speak out

The Nationality and Borders Bill would also make it more difficult for people who enter the country illegally to claim asylum and allow asylum seekers to be screened abroad.

But the committee, said on Wednesday that “a policy of pushbacks” would probably conflict with international human rights law and maritime law.

“Pushbacks are known to endanger lives at sea,” the committee said.

“This is even more so when dealing with people on small, unseaworthy vessels, in a busy shipping lane, often with rough waters, without appropriate life-saving equipment, as is the case for migrants in small boats in the Channel.”

Tom Pursglove, the British minister responsible for tackling illegal immigration, says the proposals will help to prevent deaths at sea and seek to put criminal gangs out of business.

“I think what we saw last week is a dreadful tragedy. It is unthinkable,″ he said.

“The thought that women and children and men lost their lives in this way is horrendous. And for me, that only stiffens my resolve to work as hard as I possibly can to play my part, to render the route unviable, with the ultimate objective in my mind of preserving life.”

Harriet Harman, who chairs the committee, said the government’s plans would not deter Channel crossings and would make the seas even more dangerous.

“Current failures in the immigration and asylum system cannot be remedied by harsher penalties and more dangerous enforcement action,” she said.

Updated: December 02, 2021, 1:58 PM