French coastguard could be criminally liable after ‘ignoring drowning migrants’ in English Channel

FILE - People thought to be migrants, who undertook the crossing from France in small boats and were picked up in the Channel, wait to be disembarked from a British border force vessel, in Dover, southeast England, Friday, June 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
By Thomas Brooke
5 Min Read

The French coastguard could be found to have been criminally negligent in ignoring multiple distress calls by a boatload of migrants who drowned in the English Channel in November last year.

An internal French police report which recommended investigations into CROSS, the Regional Maritime Surveillance and Rescue Operational Center, was leaked earlier this week to the French newspaper Le Monde, which reported that charges of criminal negligence were being “seriously considered by the French police, according to a written summary at the end of a ten-month investigation” into the tragedy in which 27 people died after their boat sank on Nov. 24, 2021.

Transcripts of the emergency calls received by the operation center on the aforementioned evening have been released, and will prove to be difficult reading for the operators involved.

In one dispatch, a male migrant on board the vessel told the French rescue services he was “in the water,” to which the French operator replied: “Yes, but you are in English waters.”

The line to the distressed individual was cut off as the French attempted to transfer the call to the British reception center in Dover, prompting the French operator to say: “Ah, so you can’t hear. You won’t be saved. Your feet are in the water, well… I didn’t ask you to set off.”

French authorities were first notified the vessel was sinking at 1.35 a.m. and were made aware of its location at 2.05 a.m., and despite a multitude of distress calls being made to the French and British coastguards throughout the evening, no vessel was requested to offer assistance.

According to the report, British officials had asked the French to attend because one of its rescue vessels was closest to the location. The U.K., however, assumed the group had been rescued and did not follow up with the French to ensure this was the case.

The boat was located in French waters shortly after 2 a.m., the reported stated, confirming that “no French rescue resources were sent to provide assistance.”

“In the document dated October 14, 2022, the officers of the Cherbourg (Normandy) maritime police focused on the behavior of the Gris-Nez CROSS in Pas-de-Calais, the department responsible for organizing the rescue of boats in difficulty during crossings to England. They recommended ‘additional investigations’ to shed light on ‘facts that could be classified as criminal, such as failure to assist persons in distress.'”

Le Monde

The boat had at one point crossed into U.K. waters, and while the French coastguard did report this to the British, the report asserts that French officials never told their British colleagues that the boat had been in distress and was sinking.

“As a result, the British prioritized another three boats in distress, saving 98 migrants that night,” reported the Telegraph newspaper.

According to the leaked report, the French failed to comply with a British request to send its closest rescue vessel to the location, claiming that Le Flamant vessel was engaged in another rescue operation which turned out to be false.

“Receiving no more calls (from the migrants, who were in contact with the French),” the UK coastguard “clearly thought that they had been saved,” wrote the gendarmes.

The British reportedly issued a mayday call at 3.27 a.m. which went unanswered by France’s rescue services.

The French also reportedly told a tanker that saw the vessel in distress not to assist because a rescue vessel was on its way, which was incorrect.

The dead bodies of 27 people were spotted by a fishing boat the following day. Five people remain unaccounted for and just two people survived.

The report will prove to be damning for the French government who have recently slammed their Italian neighbors for refusing to allow 234 migrants aboard the Ocean Viking humanitarian vessel to disembark in the port of Catania, prompting France to receive the ship which is financed by French charity SOS Méditerranée.

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin resorted to extremely harsh rhetoric toward the Italian government this week, labeling Meloni’s administration as “enemies of France” following the Italians’ refusal to take the Ocean Viking ship.

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