LONDON: The 27 migrants who drowned last month attempting to cross the English Channel from France to Britain tried to reach the coastguards of both countries when they realized their boat was deflating, French paper Le Monde has reported.
According to Le Monde, telephone records from the two survivors of the wreck, studied by police, showed that they had made calls to emergency services.
The sinking, which claimed 27 lives, was the deadliest incident yet among those trying to make the treacherous crossing across the English Channel.
British officials said that an inquiry was underway to determine whether the Maritime and Coastguard Agency received an alert, while French authorities denied receiving calls from the vessel, which sank on Nov. 24.
Most of those who drowned were Iraqi Kurds.
A 21-year-old Iraqi Kurd, named in reports both as Mohammed Ibrahimzadeh and Mohammed Shekha Ahmad, told Kurdish news site Rudaw: “The right side of the boat was losing air. Some people were pumping air into it and others were bailing the water from the boat. Then after a bit, we called the French police and said, ‘Help us, our pump stopped working.’
“Then (we) sent (our) location to the French police and they said, ‘You’re in British waters’ . . . we called Britain. They said: ‘Call the French police.’ Two people were calling — one was calling France and the other was calling Britain.”
Another passenger, Somalian Mohamed Isa Omar, 28, gave a similar account.
French officials say that it is inconceivable that either the British or French coastguards would respond to a call from a boat in distress by telling the caller to phone the other country’s authorities.
The UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency said that it received more than 90 alerts from boats in difficulty in the Channel that night and responded to all of them. It was, however, investigating the claims.
Speaking to MPs last week, Clandestine Channel Threat Commander Dan O’Mahoney said the UK’s coastguard had responded immediately when the French launched an emergency search and rescue operation following reports from fishermen who spotted bodies floating in the water.
O’Mahoney told parliament’s human rights committee: “At this stage I can’t tell you with any certainty whether we definitely received a call from that boat or not. It is a question for the coastguard and they are working through it.”
The issue of Channel migration has become a hot-button topic in British politics as increasing numbers of people have arrived from France on the UK’s shores this year. Some sections of the population are vehemently opposed to the arrival of more people via the Channel, going as far as to block sea rescue vessels from entering the water.
Smugglers are paid thousands of dollars to assist people with the crossings, despite often packing boats too full or having inadequate safety measures.