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Channel migrant drownings: legal action launched in France

Humanitarian organisation lodges complaint for ‘involuntary homicide’ claiming French and British services failed to respond to distress calls when a boat sank resulting in 27 deaths

An image of a life jacket left abandoned on a pebbly English beach

Humanitarian organisation Utopia 56 has lodged a complaint against British and French authorities following the death of 27 people who were attempting to cross the Channel Pic: Joe M O'Brien

French and British Channel officials are facing legal action after being accused of failing to provide help to the 27 people who drowned after their boat sank on an attempted crossing to England  on November 24.

Read more: ‘France will not allow the Channel to become a cemetery’ says Macron

Humanitarian organisation Utopia 56 initiated the legal proceedings against the maritime prefect of the Channel Philippe Dutrieux, the director of the Centre régional opérationnel de surveillance et de sauvetage Grix-Nez Marc Bonnafous and the director of Her Majesty’s Coastguard UK Claire Hughes on December 17.

Utopia 56 states that it is seeking “transparency and truth for the victims and their families,” as it called for an investigation into “involuntary homicide” and “failure to help people in need.”

The bodies of 27 people – 17 men, seven women and three children – were recovered from the sea after their boat capsized off Calais on November 24. 

Most of the deceased were Iraqi Kurds, although there were also people from Afghanistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran and Somalia. Only two men, one from Iraq and one from Sudan, survived the sinking.

“According to the testimonies of the two people who escaped, the loved ones of those who died and people who succeeded in crossing that same day, ‘distress calls were made to French and English rescue teams’ before bodies were discovered by a fishing boat,” Utopia 56 said in a statement. 

“No help was immediately offered to them,” it added, as both the French and British authorities seemingly referred the incident to each other.

Utopia 56 had previously been told by another individual who encountered difficulties while attempting to cross the Channel that: “If I call 999, they tell me to call France and if I call France they tell me to contact the UK. Both of them are laughing at us.”

Witness testimonies from November 24 also claim that there were 33 people on board the ship, and not 29.

“As citizens, and while certain cornerstones [of human rights] are constantly being violated by the state and its institutions, the law remains our only defence against the illegal and abusive practices surrounding people in a situation of exile,” said Charlotte Kwantes, Utopia 56’s national coordinator.

The maritime prefecture of the Channel previously denied that rescue teams had failed to respond to a distress call from the people on board the boat and would not comment further on this. 

A spokesperson told AFP that “rescue operations continue to deal with several attempted crossings, with 24 people being rescued from a dangerous situation this weekend.”

The UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency stated that Her Majesty’s Coastguard received more than 90 alerts from the Channel area on November 24, all of which were “answered, assessed and acted upon.

“We always have and always will respond to anyone in distress, as we did that day,” it added. 

Utopia 56 stated that the UK authorities do not appear to have opened any sort of investigation into the tragedy, and that the French government investigation “seem[ed] to focus primarily on the role of the smugglers.”

The organisation said that it hoped that its complaint would help to “shed light on the circumstances of this sinking.

“French public policy, the lies of the state, the denial of truth, feed each day into encouraging exiled people to flee to France and reach the UK. More than 30,000 people have already landed on English coastlines in 2021, turning towards illegal networks for lack of safe and legal means of passage.”

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