“The government has learnt nothing from the disaster in the Channel a year ago.”
By Labour Hub
One year after at least 27 people lost their lives in the channel, a large group of humanitarian organisations from across the UK, France and Belgium have condemned French and British authorities’ responses to the tragedy. They are calling on governments on both sides of the channel to use “all necessary means… to open up safe routes for passage for those who want them.”
Their calls come as government statistics reveal that refugee resettlement numbers and the number of family reunion visas being issued have both fallen since 2019. Refugee groups say the growing lack of safe routes is forcing people to take dangerous journeys.
Signatories include Amnesty International UK and France, Oxfam France, Doctors of the World, Freedom from Torture, and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. They say that the new Franco-British deal signed by Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron on 14th November will only increase risks for those crossing, making “the border space into a fundamentally hostile environment for refugees.”
They add that states’ “determination to ignore and neglect the human rights of refugees at their borders have led to these tragedies and will lead to more. States must put an end to the humanitarian and political crisis that they have caused. The families of the victims and members of civil society demand light and justice for the shipwreck of 24 November 2021.”
On that day, 27 bodies were recovered from the sea, including seven women and three children, while five people remain missing in the worst maritime disaster in the Channel in over three decades. Just two survivors were rescued from the waters.
A new ITV documentary reveals that UK and French emergency coastguard services spent crucial hours passing the buck about which of them should rescue the migrants’ stricken boat. Passengers called the emergency services more than a dozen times when the boat started talking in water. They were told – wrongly – that help was on its way.
A spokesperson from anti-borders group Action Against Detention and Deportations said: “The government has learnt nothing from the disaster in the Channel a year ago.”
“Increased securitisation of the Channel for the purpose of deterrence will only push people into increasingly unsafe routes, or into travelling at night, which will inevitably result in more deaths.”
Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, agreed. He accused the government of continuing to “pile hostility on to people seeking asylum.”
He added: “There are no safe routes for most people to reach the UK, a snowballing backlog, tens of thousands of people warehoused in hotels and hundreds of millions wasted on a Rwanda deal, drones, a work ban and other cruel and ineffective deterrent schemes. This hostility just makes it more likely that there will be a tragedy.”
Vigils took place yesterday in Folkestone, London, Paris and Dunkirk to commemorate the lives of people who lost their lives in the Channel on 24th November 2021. One of the organisers of the Folkestone vigil, Bridget Chapman, told Kent Live that she wanted to use the vigil as a way to humanise those who died by reading the names of some of the dead.
“I feel that if their lives are to mean anything, we can at least change that for them so that other people don’t have to put themselves at risk, and it’s about honouring their memory by demanding that nobody else has to go through the same thing,” she said.
In London, Stand Up To Racism, Care4Calais and the TUC organised a vigil outside Westminster Abbey. It called for answers to why French and British authorities failed to help and to know when the results of the Article 2 Inquiry will be made public to provide answers to the families who have already waited a year.
The full letter, signed by 65 humanitarian groups, is below:
On November 24, 2021, around 2pm, a fishing boat spotted dozens of bodies floating in the freezing waters of the Channel. One by one, lifeless bodies were fished out. At least 27 people drowned, four are still missing, and two survived. This accident, one year ago, was the deadliest at the French-UK border since the lifeless bodies of 39 Vietnamese migrants were found in a lorry in 2019.
Kazhal, Hadiya, Maryam and the others had left the French coast on a rubber dinghy the night before, around 10pm. Fleeing conflict and poverty, they all hoped to reach the UK safe and sound. Some to join their family, their partners, others to flee the conditions with which they were greeted in Europe, and many hoped to be able to work there to support their families left behind. Faced with the impossibility of safe passage, Mhabad, Rezhwan, Mohammed and the others turned to illegal smuggling rings.
Around 2am, in the pitch black of night, the boat started to take on water. The recordings of calls to French emergency services, published by Le Monde on November 13, 2022, are chilling. They prove that multiple distress calls were received by French emergency services and that they were treated with contempt. Calls were also made to British emergency services. None of these calls led to any rescue efforts, neither from the French, nor from the British. They died from drowning in icy water. “We held hands until the very end,” says Mohammed, who survived.
Pshtiwan, Shakar, Fikiru and others came from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Somalia and Vietnam. They crossed mountains, deserts, seas, travelled through violence, thirst, and hunger, they travelled from 3,000 to 10,000 kilometres for years and months to arrive there, at the French coast, under a tent, with an empty bag on their back, 33 kilometres away from their goal. Twana, Mubin, and others were aged between 6 and 59 years old and had left their parents, siblings and friends to get there.
Reactions from politicians followed: “France will not let the Channel become a cemetery,” said Emmanuel Macron the day after the shipwreck. It is too late. On November 28, four European Home Secretaries and Interior Ministers held an emergency meeting in Calais at the request of Gérald Darmanin to discuss, according to him, “the fight against illegal migration and gangs of people smugglers.”
Since that day, there have been 1,712 evictions of campsites on the northern coastline, hundreds of tents confiscated, several thousand police officers mobilised, and one Frontex plane deployed to dissuade and disperse. Since that day, trenches have been dug, trees cut, and hundreds of rocks spread out to prevent campsites from being set up and to hinder the work of organisations on the ground.
Since that day, more than 42,000 people have crossed the Channel on small boats according to the UK Ministry of Defence. That represents thousands of people who have set sail on small boats and just as many who had to survive in informal settlements on the French coastline without water, without electricity, without rights. Since then, more than 7,000 people have been rescued at sea, according to the maritime authorities – then, for the vast majority of them, abandoned on the French coast, drenched and traumatised. Eighteen have died at the border, including six people who drowned and one person who may have taken their own life.
“Every morning in Calais, there’s something new to overcome. We live knowing our friends who are with us today might not be with us tomorrow. Death is in our eyes, fear and anxiety never leave our minds,” friends of Yasser had shared after he died on September 28 2021, hit by a truck.
In the face of the situation on the ground, the policies are violent and senseless. As a 2021 report by the parliamentary investigation committee on migration states, 85% of the budget of the French government for the French-UK border in 2020 was allocated to the repression of people in a situation of migration. In other words, €100 million used to evict, hinder and harass.
The new France-UK deal, signed on November 14, only endorses this security-focused logic. By allocating even more funds to the police, British and French authorities are furthering their mission to make the border space into a fundamentally hostile environment for refugees. However, contrary to the aspirations of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, this border will never become “unviable.” Increasing the amount of obstacles for the border crossing – through barriers, video surveillance or police patrols– only increases risks taken by refugees attempting to cross it. They also contribute to the hold of smuggling rings, which have become essential for border crossings.
After thousands of articles from across the world, hours of press conferences and TV debates pointing out the consequences of smuggling networks without ever mentioning the causes, the world today has looked away from the shipwreck, leaving the situation to carry on endlessly. For us, French, Belgian, and British organisations, collectives, and researchers – in the name of rights and our values – it is unthinkable to let this situation continue without doing anything.
All necessary means need to be put into place to open safe routes for passage for those who want them and to welcome people on French soil with dignity. The way people fleeing war in Ukraine were received shows us that solutions exist.
In memory of these 31 women, men, and children, and to the 325 others who have died at the border since 1999, the French and British governments must open their eyes and recognise the irresponsibility. Their determination to ignore and neglect the human rights of refugees at their borders have led to these tragedies and will lead to more. States must put an end to the humanitarian and political crisis that they have caused. The families of the victims and members of civil society demand light and justice for the shipwreck of 24 November 2021.
Let’s honour the dead and build a politics of welcome.