Manslaughter charge against UK, France coastguard officials after 27 migrant deaths

Manslaughter charge against UK, France coastguard officials after 27 migrant deaths
A French NGO has filed a complaint for manslaughter against British and French coastguard officials following the deaths of at least 27 people in the English Channel last month, the largest single loss of life in the waters since 2014.
3 min read
21 December, 2021
More than 25,000 people have crossed the English Channel in 2021 [Getty]

A French NGO on Monday filed a "complaint for manslaughter" against UK and French coastguard officials who they believe are culpable in the deaths of at least 27 migrants in the English Channel last month. 

Utopia 56 lodged a complaint against the UK's Claire Hughes, Director of Her Majesty’s Coastguards, and France's Philippe Dutrieux, Maritime Prefect of the Channel and the North Sea, as well as others, after hearing reports from survivors that British and French emergency services were contacted as the boat was sinking on 24 November. 

However, these calls reportedly went unanswered, leaving the group - mostly Iraqi Kurds - at the mercy of the choppy Channel waters. 

The NGO said it wants to shed light on "the circumstances of this shipwreck" and help the victims' families and friends unearth the "truth" about what happened, so everyone can "learn the lessons and consequences".

"While certain foundations are constantly flouted by the State and its institutions, the law remains our only bulwark against these illegal and mistreating practices organised towards people in exile," said Charlotte Kwantes, national coordinator of Utopia 56. 

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Two survivors, Mohammed Shekha Ahmad and Mohammed Isa Omar, told Kurdish media network Rudaw that people called for help as the tragedy was unfolding. However, Ahmad said French authorities told them to contact the English, and English authorities told them to call the French

Utopia 56 claimed this is not the first time calls from migrants in the Channel have been passed between authorities. On the morning of 20 November, the NGO reportedly received a voice message from a drifting boat stating: "For example, if I call 999, they say call France and when we call France they tell us to contact the United Kingdom. Both are laughing at us." 

At the time of the 24 November incident, the French maintained they were only alerted to the disaster by a fishing vessel. By the time they arrived, it was too late to help many of the migrants, including three minors and one pregnant woman. 

Since then, the French have opened a probe into the 27 deaths, which mainly focuses on the role of people smugglers, said Utopia 56. 

French investigators have confirmed the existence of the distress calls by studying the telephone records of the two survivors, reported newspaper Le Monde.  

In the UK, a legal complaint has been filed by relatives of the victims calling for an independent public inquiry to establish the facts of what happened on 24 November. Lawyers representing the relatives said "serious failings" in the rescue operation may have contributed to the 27 deaths.

A spokesperson for HM Coastguard said in response: "It is not appropriate for us to comment on the specifics of this legal action. On 24 November, Her Majesty's Coastguard received over 90 alerts from the English Channel area… Every call was answered, assessed, and acted upon." 

More than 25,000 people have crossed the English Channel from France to the UK this year, the majority of whom are refugees fleeing war and persecution.