The UK Government must not pass the buck on drowning refugees

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 18th Nov 2022

I make no apology for writing about asylum seekers for the third week in a row.  They really are amongst the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in our society, and, if Suella Braverman has her way, their situation will only get worse.  But this week brought to light some truly horrifying information about the circumstances surrounding multiple deaths by drowning in the English Channel almost a year ago and I am shocked, but not, I am afraid, surprised, that it has not had more coverage.

On the night of 23rd/24th November last year 34 migrants set off from near Dunkirk to cross the channel on a small dinghy provided by people smugglers. The group included women and children. Many of them were Kurdish. People leave Kurdistan in Iraq to start a new life in the UK for many reasons including economic as well as security and political issues. I have called these people migrants. Some of them may have been refugees. Some of them, including one of the two survivors, a Somalian, were certainly asylum seekers. But whatever they were they were human beings, and it is important to understand that just because migrants may not have fled persecution, that does not mean that aren’t entitled to have their human rights protected like the rest of us. That includes the right to life.  By the afternoon of the following day 27 of the group had drowned. Five are still missing. Only two survived.

Up until now the position of the UK Government has been that the tragedy happened in French waters.  A documentary shown on ITV on Monday night, called ‘The Crossing’ suggests that is not the case and reveals disturbing information about what happened in the hours between the boat first getting into difficulty and one of the two survivors, Issa Mohammed, being picked out of the water at around 2pm on 24th November. The documentary is based on his testimony, that of relatives of the deceased, the logs of the French coastguard and a report from a marine expert who has reconstructed what occurred using information about the currents, tides, the wind, and phone records.

Issa recalls that once the boat got into difficulty at least 8 different passengers made emergency calls from their phones.  The records of the French coastguard show the French rescue services asking for a position then transmitting the information to a UK rescue team. The French police told the passengers they were in UK waters. Thereafter it appears the French and British argued amongst themselves about who should rescue the dinghy. The expert report estimates that the dinghy was about half a mile from the UK border when it got into initial difficulty and that by 4am it was well inside British waters. At 4:16am there is a call to say people are in the water and drowning. According to the expert this should have triggered a large-scale response immediately. The channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and that night there were many boats in the vicinity who could have got to the dinghy if a Mayday call had been sent out. That did not happen although it appears a UK rescue boat and helicopter were sent out but could not find the dinghy.

Issa remember the moment the dinghy capsized. It was overcrowded and had been letting in water for some time. The water was very cold. People were drowning and screaming “like children.” When day broke eight people were still alive. Over the next nine hours he watched them die one by one.  He swam and was picked up by a fishing boat at about 2pm.  Twelve hours after the first distress call the French coastguard posted a Mayday.

One is left with the uncomfortable feeling that had it been another type of boat with another type of passenger the response would have been very different. Subsequent events reinforce this impression. The normal political response to a loss of life so large in UK waters or indeed on land would be to hold an independent public inquiry. Typically, one would expect this to be announced almost immediately but nearly a year has passed and there has been no such announcement. This is perhaps because it is still the official position of the UK Government that the boat sank in French waters. The UK Home Office in contrast with the French authorities are refusing to share any information.

The documentary maker sent me an advance embargoed copy and I was so shocked by it I decided to take the case up in parliament.  My research reveals that solicitors acting for the families of some of the deceased and one of the survivors sent their evidence about what happened to the British Government in March this year.  I put all of this to the junior home office minister for immigration in parliament on Wednesday. Then I asked him to tell me what it is about the people who drowned that means that no independent public inquiry has been announced into the circumstances of their drowning?

Of course, he did not answer the question.   Instead, he said that 98% of boats that attempt the crossing and pass the median line are helped ashore by Border Force, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution or the Royal Navy and paid tribute to the British authorities. He said they cannot secure the passage of everyone who chooses to get in an unsafe dinghy at the behest of people traffickers and cross the channel. The best advice is, “Do not make that dangerous passage. It is illegal and extremely perilous.” All of that is as maybe but the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea creates an obligation to rescue anyone in danger at sea. Article 98 obliges states to require all masters of a ship to help anyone in danger at sea, so long as it does not also cause serious danger to the rescuing ship.  It seems that this obligation was not honoured here by either the French or the British and, whatever the legal position, the morality of what occurred is deeply troubling.

I intend to continue raising this case in parliament.  A friend who has worked with refugees in the Greek islands tells me that this sort of passing the buck about the safety of refugees in the seas between Greece and Turkey happens all the time.  I would not want that to be the case here. 

Joanna Cherry KC MP

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