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Paul Vallely: Did the UK ignore drowning people?

10 December 2021

An investigation is needed into what went on in the Channel, says Paul Vallely


The personal belongings of people who attempted the cross the English Channel lie on the beach, on 26 November, in Willemeux, Pas-de-Calais, France

The personal belongings of people who attempted the cross the English Channel lie on the beach, on 26 November, in Willemeux, Pas-de-Calais, Fra...

A PARTICULARLY shocking accusation was made this week against the British authorities. One of the two survivors of the shipwreck in which 27 migrants perished (News, 3 December) claimed that, as the right side of the dinghy began to deflate, and then the motor stopped working, the desperate passengers on board made at least two calls to the UK, begging to be rescued.

One of them, Muhammad Ibrahim, told Kurdish television: “[We] sent [our] location to the French police and they said: ‘You’re in British waters.’ So we called Britain. They said: ‘Call the French police.’” Relatives of the dead, who were tracking the boat’s progress in real time via Facebook Messenger, believe that the dinghy had reached British waters.

The matter was raised last week at the House of Commons Select Committee on Human Rights. MPs questioned Dan O’Mahoney, the man who was last year appointed “small-boat commander” by Priti Patel, with the brief to make the Channel “unviable” for illegal immigrants travelling from Calais and Dunkirk. Mr O’Mahoney said that he could not say with any certainty whether those on board had rung the UK for help: “It may never be possible to say with absolute accuracy whether that boat was in UK waters or French waters.” HM Coastguard was investigating, he said.

It is to be profoundly hoped that the investigation does not prove that drowning people were wilfully or negligently ignored. Britain has a history of making bellicose noises about immigrants, as when ministers recently released footage of Border Force jet skis practising turning back migrant boats to France. Yet the French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, has revealed that the public bombast of the British Government stands in contrast to cordial private relationships and behind-the-scenes co-operation.

“We do not imagine for a single instant that Britain could . . . turn back boats when it will mean dozens of people, pregnant women, children, the elderly, who will die,” he said. “We cannot imagine for one second that this could enter a British head.” Let us hope not.

An investigation by the newspaper the i, analysing more than 20,000 individual ship and aircraft movements between Dover and Calais on the fateful day, showed that the dinghy began to sink at about 2.15 a.m., and that the Border Force cutter, HMC Valiant, headed to the area at 2.44 a.m., a coastguard helicopter following at 3.46 a.m. But there appears to be no record of the time that the despairing occupants of the dinghy sent out their distress calls. So it is unclear whether our emergency services were dilatory or not.

An investigation into all this is urgently needed. Alas, we have seen before, in the era of Theresa May, that the deliberate creation of a “hostile environment” can lead to unforeseen and undesirable consequences. Perhaps the worst of these is that, as Pope Francis said with exasperation in Cyprus last week, “we are getting used to this.”

Setting aside his prepared remarks, the Pope said, with barely suppressed indignation: “To get used to it is a grave disease, very grave, and there is no antibiotic to this disease.” He continued that it was his responsibility to help to open eyes about this growing “culture of indifference”. It is a responsibility that we all share.

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