Relatives who lost relatives in a mass drowning in the Channel a year ago have criticized the British body investigating the tragedy for making no progress in determining how and why dozens of lives were lost.
An interim report from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) released on Thursday confirmed that the boat had reached British waters.
Officials initially thought the tragedy was outside their jurisdiction because the bodies and survivors had been found in the French part of the English Channel.
But an investigation into Britain’s search and rescue efforts was launched in January “when it became clear that some of the events related to this loss of life had taken place in British waters,” the report says.
It adds that when officials sent search and rescue, there was no sign of the boat or its passengers.
In the incident on November 24, 2021, 31 people slowly froze to death in the English Channel. They had made repeated SOS calls to French and British emergency services, but no help was sent to them. Of those aboard the overcrowded dinghy, 27 bodies were recovered. Four are still missing.
Only two people survived the incident, the Channel’s worst maritime disaster for 30 years. The dead included 21 men, seven women, including one who was pregnant, and three adolescents.
Their thin boat left France on November 23, 2021 at about 10 p.m. At about midnight it began to deflate and sank in the middle of the Channel. When the passengers repeatedly called French and British emergency services, the French told them they were in British waters, while the British told them they were in French waters.
It was only 11 o’clock hours later – at 2:00 pm the next day – a French fisherman saw the bodies in the water and raised the alarm.
The families spoke through their lawyers on the first anniversary of the tragedy and expressed their dismay at MAIB’s two-page interim report.
Maria Thomas, from Duncan Lewis’ lawyers, said: “We need one independent inquiry into what happened that night. The English and French parties should have access to each other’s files from the night of the drownings. If there are any systemic issues that contributed to a major loss of life that night, they must be identified in an independent investigation to ensure that a tragedy like this does not happen again.”
Sixteen of the bereaved have written to Rishi Sunak urging him to make changes to avoid future tragedies.
In the letter from the bereaved to the Prime Minister – co-signed by Care4Calais, Channel Rescue and Safe Passage, along with several trade unions, including the Trades Union Congress and the RMT, MPs including Bell Ribeiro-Addy, and the writer Michael Rosen – the families demand justice for their lost loved ones.
The letter reads: “We demand answers as to why the French and British authorities abandoned the desperate people who came for help. We demand an end to the poisonous rhetoric of our politicians – who call innocent refugees “illegal migrants” or, worse, “an invasion” – which spread fear and division. We call for safe passage so that these refugees can seek asylum in Britain without risking their lives in the Channel.”
The next of kin are further saddened because on Wednesday they received generic letters via SMS or WhatsApp from MAIB that did not refer to them or their lost loved ones by name, asking them to provide evidence for the investigation, such as any last phone calls they may have had lined. with their relatives when the dinghy began to empty. Relatives say they don’t understand why it took MAIB a year to contact them.
Thomas said: “There has been no speed and no transparency in the lawsuit that the next of kin are bringing. Timeliness is critical as it ensures the preservation of evidence, and it is concerning that it has taken so long to contact the families.
“Families received depersonalized letters the day before the birthday without their name or the name of the relative they had lost, making them feel that the detectives did not care about them. This further eroded their confidence in the MAIB investigation.”
A MAIB spokesperson said: “On the anniversary of the accident, our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones in this tragedy. While it may not be possible to fully understand what exactly happened at the time of the accident, it is important that we examine whether the UK’s emergency response was appropriate that night when it became apparent that migrant boats might be in distress in British waters.
“The aim of our investigation is to improve safety, and if lessons can be learned, and if deemed appropriate, we will make recommendations to address the issues identified. Our research is ongoing and we expect to publish it in early summer 2023.”
The spokesman added that tracing the victims’ families was “a complex process”.