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French coastguard accused of ignoring migrants in distress at sea

The French coastguard has been accused of ignoring the pleas of migrants at risk of drowning at sea.

Some 150 calls were made to a humanitarian hotline for those in distress in the Channel between January and the end of November 2023.

The call logs reveal chaos and terror at sea as migrants pack into overcrowded and unsafe dinghies in a bid to reach the UK.

But records of the calls also reveal humanitarians allegedly being told to stop calling, or not to provide information about boats in danger after alerting the French maritime emergency number – 196.

In one incident, recorded by French-based charity Utopia 56, which runs the hotline, humanitarians wrote that they were contacted by a boat in the early hours of 21 February in waters close to Calais.

When they alerted French authorities, they noted that they were told “don’t call us, it disturbs our work”.

The number of people on the boat and condition of the vessel is not clear in this case, and the fate of those on board is not recorded in the vast majority of log entries.

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, onboard the Ramsgate Lifeboat following a small boat incident in the Channel. Picture date: Thursday August 10, 2023. PA Photo. See PA story POLITICS Migrants. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, onboard the Ramsgate Lifeboat following a small boat incident in the Channel on August 10. (Copyright: PA)

After being contacted by another boat in distress during the early hours of 25 January, humanitarians recorded that the French authorities “refused to take the GPS coordinates” of the boat.

During another incident on 6 June involving a boat carrying 50 people, humanitarians said 196 had told them they had made “too many calls”.

“They didn’t take the information but did ask for an email,” they wrote in the log.

The calls between Utopia and the French coastguard are not recorded but the information is documented in contemporaneous notes in the logs.

Utopia 56, which offers aid to migrants on the ground in France and an emergency number for people to call if they get into distress in the Channel, said such incidents were common. In some cases French authorities did take information or were already responding.

French border operations are heavily subsidised by the British Government, with surveillance and patrols part funded by the UK.

Earlier this year, Rishi Sunak announced a further £480m deal with France towards the cost of policing the border, including doubling the number of French police officers on the coast and stationing British officials in France.

The financing is part of a broader attempt to stop small boats crossings, which No10 has made central to its pledge to the public, with policies including a plan to deter migrants by sending those arriving to Rwanda.

There were just two incidents in which the humanitarian workers are recorded to have passed the call to the British coastguard; UK authorities said they were already aware of the boat in question or already responding at the scene.

The French coastguard and Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations contained in the call logs.

However, they previously told i that it has six vessels on alert during days when the weather conditions are favourable for crossings, meaning it can carry out several rescue operations simultaneously, and share information with land forces.

The coastguard said that there “is no zero risk” while at sea, and that it is therefore “working to prevent migrants who want to attempt the crossing from taking to the sea as much as possible”.

Calais authorities said that they worked to save lives by fighting smuggling networks and offered support to migrants including access to water and care, and disperse camps which would “otherwise become slums”.

“It is not the police who are responsible for endangering lives, but the smugglers,” a spokesperson previously said.

Earlier this year, seven French soldiers were charged with failing to assist a person in danger over the deaths of 27 people who drowned while trying to cross the English Channel on 24 November 2021. They are accused of ignoring a number of calls for help from the stricken boat.

More than 27,000 people have crossed the Channel so far this year in a bid to reach the UK, where 90 per cent claim asylum. This can only be done on British soil.

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