NGO Sues UK, French Coast Guards Over Fatal Migrant Boat Sinking

Coastguard sued over response to migrant tragedy in English Channel
British and French rescues services were named in the lawsuit (file photo)

Published Dec 22, 2021 5:52 PM by The Maritime Executive

A French humanitarian group announced that it has filed a criminal lawsuit against the British and French coast guards and various authorities responsible for shipping in the English Channel over an incident on November 24 during which 27 migrants drowned. At the time, authorities blamed an unnamed containership for causing the inflatable dingy the migrants were in to deflate. 

“We must learn the lessons and consequences, including on the criminal level of the sinking of November 24, 2021, so that, never again, do these tragedies happen,” said the charity Utopia 56. They said the goal was to have a full investigation into the circumstances that caused the tragedy and the response by the British and French authorities. 

Among the parties named in their legal action are Her Majesty’s Coastguard, the French maritime chief for the English Channel, and the French regional coastguard on charges of “involuntary manslaughter,” and a “failure to help people in need.” They also said the suit would include any other accomplices to the tragedy.

The two survivors from the incident told the authorities that they had set out in a small inflatable dingy from near Calais, France. The dingy was designed to hold a maximum of 10 people but it was believed that there were at least 30 adults and children who were being smuggled across the Channel. They said a large ship hit their dingy causing it to deflate. Media reports at the time said the first response came from a fishing boat that came upon the bodies in the English Channel.

According to the charity, the two survivors said their group made emergency calls asking for assistance from the British and French rescue services when their boat began to deflate. Utopia 56 alleges that this is not the first instance in which the rescue services ignored calls for assistance from migrants in the English Channel. Four days before the November 24 incident they said another group called for assistance and was told by the British that they needed to call the French and got a similar response from the French who said it was the British responsibility. “Both are laughing at us,” the charity said reporting the experience of the migrants in the Channel.

After the incident, which was reported as possibly the single largest loss of migrants in the Channel, both the British and French reported a crackdown on the smugglers seeking payment from the migrants camping on the French coast and seeking a way to reach Britain. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the French demanding a crackdown or suggesting England send its forces on to the French beaches. France arrested individuals that it said were involved in the smuggling operations.

Utopia 56 further accuses the British authorities of failing to start a broader investigation into the allegations and the loss of the migrants. They also said that France is only focusing on the smugglers and not investigating the circumstances that led to the loss of the migrants. They reported that 27 bodies were retrieved from the Channel including three children. Media reports indicated the individuals had been identified as being from Iraqi Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and Somalia.

A British law firm has also reportedly filed paper work with the UK Home Office on behalf of one of the two survivors. They are calling for public inquiry into the tragedy.

The UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency said it was not appropriate for it to comment on the incident due to the legal action. They, however, reported that they received over 90 alerts and emergency calls that day alone from the English Channel and investigate each one and sent search and rescue teams when it was deemed appropriate.