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Racist murder—how British and French authorities let refugees drown in the Channel

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A new ITV programme and fresh evidence from France shows the authorities refused to help a boat of desperate refugees
Issue 2832
Supporting refugees. 50 protesters behind banners from Sheffield Stand Up To Racism and partners

Supporting refugees’ rights at a protest in Sheffield

Searing new evidence confirms that the Tories and their agents have blood on their hands for migrants drowning in the Channel.

Nearly a year ago on 24 November 2021 a flimsy rubber dinghy sank in the English Channel, killing at least 27 people, with five still missing and two survivors. They died because of racist laws that throw up barriers and deny safe entry to Britain for people fleeing war, repression, environmental collapse and poverty.

The policies of the French and British governments require callous enforcers, who must remove all thoughts of human sympathy and solidarity. A new ITV television documentary and fresh evidence from France underlines the callous unconcern that sentenced the migrants to death.

These latest accounts provide far more detail than any previous news source. 

Issa Mohammed, a Somali asylum seeker and one of the two survivors, provides a detailed testimony in the documentary. He said, “Children were screaming. All I could hear were the screams of children drowning. I saw dead bodies floating by my side. That’s when the horror kicked in.”

The French newspaper Le Monde last weekend published the details of communications between the dying refugees and the French coastguard at the Cross Gris-Nez regional office. Known as the Cross, it is supposed to coordinate rescues at sea.

The harrowing messages confirm that refugees repeatedly called for help while they were sinking, but both the British and French authorities refused help. Instead, they cynically tried to pass responsibility on to the other country’s forces.

The refugees transmitted their geolocation at least three times to the French emergency services. But they were abandoned, despite being reassured that help was coming or that they would soon be assisted by some other service.

The television programme includes an interview with a survivor. He said that as the dinghy entered the water there was fear but also hope. “Everyone on board had a life problem. Some like me had run away from wars. So I was happy, my dream of success and putting all my suffering behind me was about to come true,” he said.

And then came terror and death.

1:48am: The first call. A refugee tells the French rescue service that there are 33 people on board a boat in the Channel that is going to sink.  The dinghy’s engine has stopped and efforts by the passengers to bail out the water from the dinghy also failed.

The operator tells him to send his geolocation by WhatsApp. Emergency services could hear the screams of people drowning. Passengers begged them to come, saying, “We are dying, come and get us.” The operator tells them that if they send their position, they will be sent a rescue boat.

It was a busy night for the Cross. One boat in particular “did not stop calling us that night”, shift supervisor Pauline M told police investigating the deaths. That was the boat that sank.

1:51am: A refugee phoned the Pas-de-Calais Samu emergency medical services, which transferred the call to the Cross. “Apparently, nothing’s really working on their boat anymore,” warned the Samu operator when transferring the call. The communication lasted nearly 14 minutes. “Please, please! We need help, please. Please help us,” the man onboard implored.

2:10am: The boat is still in French waters, people continue to call begging for help, the operator of the Cross tells them to keep calm and pretends help is coming. In fact, the Cross calls the English rescue services claiming that the boat is located “in their zone”.

2.44am: The British coastguard emailed—emailed, not spoke to— the French rescue service. It said it considered the boat was in French territorial waters as it could hear a continental ringtone on a passenger’s phone.

3.30am: One of the refugees explained that he was literally in the water. The Cross replied, “Yes, but you are in English waters.” And then the operator says in an aside to another operative, “Ah well, you can’t hear it, you won’t be saved. I didn’t ask you to leave”. 

4am: As the boat sank, calls from passengers multiplied, pleading for help. During one of these calls, the operator repeated to him once again to send his location. And then said in an aside, “I’m going to give him the magic phrase, no position, no rescue boat.”

4.16am: A refugee makes a last call to the French coastguard, saying, “People are in the water, it’s over. We are dying. It’s cold.” The Cross operator stubbornly asked, “Where in France did you start from?”

On the phone, the passenger explained that he has no internet and begged to be sent a helicopter. The conversation lasted 7 minutes. Screams from women, men and children can be heard, as if they were trying to hail someone. “We see a big boat,” the person said. “What colour is the boat?” the operator asked. The conversation suddenly cut off.

About the time people were dying, a vessel called Concerto reported seeing a small boat in distress and asked the emergency services if it should rescue it. French authorities said another rescue boat was on its way, but no rescue took place.

Asked about the lack of help, several members of the Cross said that “often migrants call and cry out for danger without a reason”.

We now know far more about what the French coastguard did that night. But the British actions are covered-up. The French coastguard disclosed its record of emergency calls to lawyers as part of a French investigation. The British authorities have not.

But the latest evidence confirms the account given soon after the drownings to the Kurdish news service, Rudaw.

Mohammed Shekha Ahmad, from Qaladze town in Iraqi Kurdistan, told Rudaw the refugees had called the French coastguard only to be told they were in  British waters. But he added, “We called Britain. They said call the French police. Two people were calling—one was calling France and the other was calling Britain.” The migrants made their calls in English.

A relative of two of the victims, who was in contact with them via Facebook during the crossing, also said the migrants reached British waters. “About 45 minutes before they drowned, they called and said they were in British waters but could not move. “I believe they were inside British waters,” he said.

Asked if his relative on the boat called the British police, he replied, “100 percent, 100 percent.” And British police “even said they would come” to the rescue. Nothing has changed in the last year, except to make it even more difficult and dangerous to enter Britain. Such moves guarantee more drownings.

Remember their names

The people who died in the Channel have names, lives, stories, and families. They are:

Bryar Hamad Abdulrahman, 23 years old – Mhabad Ahmad Ali, 32 years old – Mohamed Hassan Elsaey Mohamed Ali – Sirwan Alipour, 23 years old – Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin, 24 years old – Mohammed Qadir Aulla, 21 years old – Bilind Shukir Baker, 20 years old – Ahmad Didar , 27 years old – Pshtiwan Rasul Farka, 18 years old – Meron Hailu Gebrehiwot, 22 years old – Shikh Halima, 23 years old – Muslim Ismael Hamad, 19 years old – Rezhwan Yasin Hassan, 19 years old – Tahna Husain, 24 years old – Hasti Rzgar Hussein, 7 years old – Mubin Rzgar Hussein, 16 years old – Hadiya Rzgar Hussein, 22 years old – Kazhal Ahmed Khidir, 46 years old – Shawali Kochy, 26 years old – Zanyar Mina, 20 years old – Deniz Afrasia Ahmed Mohammed, 27 years old – Mohammed Hussein Mohammed, 19 years old – Twana Mamand Mohammed, 18 years old – Hassan Muhammed, 37 years old – Harem Serkaut Perot Muhammad, 28 years old – Gomaa Gaber Mohamed Ahmed Nada – Mayar Muhammad Naeem, 46 years old – Shakar Ali Pirot, 30 years old – Fikiru Shiferaw, 46 years old – Niyat Ferede Yeshiwendm, 22 years old – An anonymous man


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