Sixteen bereaved relatives of 31 refugees who drowned in the Channel have written to Rishi Sunak on the first anniversary of their loved ones’ deaths, urging him to make changes to prevent future tragedies.
On 24 November 2021, 31 people slowly froze to death in the Channel. They had repeatedly made SOS calls to French and UK emergency services but no help was sent to them. Of those on board the overcrowded dinghy 27 bodies were recovered. Four are still missing.
Only two people survived in the incident, the worst maritime disaster in the Channel for 30 years. Among the dead were 21 men, seven women, including one who was pregnant, and three adolescents.
Their flimsy boat left France at about 10pm on 23 November 2021. Around midnight it began to deflate and sink in the middle of the Channel. When repeated calls were made by the passengers to French and UK emergency services the French told them they were in British waters while the British told them they were in French waters.
It was not until 11 hours later – at 2pm the next day – that a French fisher spotted the bodies in the water and raised the alarm.
In the letter from the bereaved relatives to the prime minister – co-signed by Care4Calais, Channel Rescue, and Safe Passage, along with several trade unions, MPs, including Bell Ribeiro-Addy, and the writer Michael Rosen – the families demand justice for their lost loved ones.
The letter states: “We demand answers to why French and British authorities failed desperate people who came asking for help. We demand an end to the poisonous rhetoric used by our politicians – calling innocent refugees ‘illegal migrants’ or, worse, ‘an invasion’ – which breeds fear and division. We call for safe passage to allow these refugees to claim asylum in Britain without risking their lives in the Channel.”
An ITV documentary obtained French coastguard logs from the time of the drowning, which revealed that UK and French emergency services passed the buck regarding the rescue pleas.
The French newspaper Le Monde obtained a leaked report from the Cherbourg Maritime Gendarmerie investigations unit that identified failings of the French emergency services, which the newspaper reports may warrant criminal charges for “non-assistance of persons in danger”.
A second letter, published in Le Monde on Thursday and co-signed by 65 UK, French and Belgian humanitarian organisations, including Amnesty International UK and France, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and the French Red Cross (Croix Rouge), documents the lack of progress in providing safe passage for refugees crossing the Channel since the mass drowning happened a year ago. It calls for the current approach to be replaced with a humanitarian policy for refugees crossing the Channel.
On 28 November 2021 four European home secretaries and interior ministers held an emergency meeting in Calais to discuss “the fight against illegal migration and gangs of people smugglers”.
Since then, 7,000 people have been rescued at sea, according to the French maritime authorities, the majority of whom were abandoned on the French coast, drenched and traumatised.
The new France-UK deal, signed on 14 November, endorses this security-focused logic, according to the signatories of the letter.
“The world today has looked away from the shipwreck, leaving the situation to endlessly carry on. All necessary means need to be put into place to open safe routes for passage for those who want them,” the letter states.