Sixteen bereaved relatives of 31 refugees who drowned in the Channel have written to Rishi Sunak on the one-year 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 British emergency services, but no help was sent to them. Of those on board the overcrowded dinghy, 27 bodies were found. Four are still missing.
Only two people survived the incident, the worst maritime disaster in the Channel for 30 years. Among the dead were 21 men, seven women, including one pregnant woman, and three teenagers.
Their flimsy boat left France around 22:00 on 23 November 2021. Around midnight it began to empty and sink in the middle of the Channel. When the passengers repeatedly called French and British emergency services, the French told them they were in British waters, while the British told them they were in French waters.
It was only 11 hours later – at 2pm the following day – that a French fisherman discovered 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 Rescueand Safe passageAlong with several unions, MPs including Bell Ribeiro-Addy, and author Michael Rosen – the families are demanding justice for their lost loved ones.
The letter states: “We demand answers as to why the French and British authorities failed desperate people who came asking for help. We demand an end to the toxic rhetoric used by our politicians – calling innocent refugees ‘illegal migrants’ or even worse ‘an invasion’ – which breeds fear and division. We are calling for safe passage to allow these refugees to seek asylum in the UK without risking their lives in the Channel.”
An ITV documentary obtained French coastguard logs from the time of the drowning which revealed that British and French emergency services were giving up on the rescue requests.
French newspaper Le Monde obtained a leaked report from the Cherbourg Maritime Gendarmerie investigative unit that identified failings by the French emergency services, which the newspaper reports could warrant criminal charges for “failure to assist persons in danger”.
Another letter, published in Le Monde today and co-signed by NGOs on both sides of the Channel, 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 terms of ensuring safe passage for refugees crossing the Channel since the mass drowning occurred a year ago. It calls for the current approach to be replaced by 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, according to the French maritime authorities, 7,000 people have been rescued at sea, the majority of whom were abandoned on the French coast, adrift and traumatized.
The new agreement between France and Britain, signed on November 14, supports this security-focused logic, according to the signatories of the letter.
“The world today has looked away from the shipwreck and is allowing the situation to continue indefinitely. All necessary means must be put in place to open safe avenues of passage for those who desire it,” the letter reads.