England, France Ignored Migrants' Calls for Help as Boat Sank in Channel, Survivor Says

A survivor of a deadly migration accident in the English Channel said they called English and French authorities for help after their boat capsized but was told by both sides to call the other.

The Associated Press reported that on November 24, an overcrowded inflatable boat sank in the English Channel between Britain and France, killing 27 people. The incident was the deadliest migration accident ever recorded in the English Channel.

Mohammed Ibrahim Zada, a Kurdish migrant from Iran, was on the boat when it started to fill with water. He told Kurdish Rudaw media that France and Britain ignored their calls for help.

"We called the French police and asked them to help us,'' he said. "We sent our location to the French police, and they said, you are in British waters. So, we were inside British waters and called the British police for help, but they said call the French police.''

Britain's Home Office said British authorities responded to every call made that day and did not ignore the migrant's plea for help. Dan O'Mahoney, Britain's clandestine Channel threat commander, said there were multiple migrant boats in the water during that time.

"I can't tell you with any certainty whether we definitely received a call from that boat or not," said O'Mahoney, adding said that the Coast Guard was attempting to find out.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Migrant Crossing, England, France, Rescue
A survivor of a deadly migration accident in the English Channel said they called English and French authorities for help after their boat capsized but was told by both sides to call the other. Above, migrants are helped ashore from a Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat at a beach in Dungeness, on the southeast coast of England on November 24, 2021, after being rescued while crossing the English Channel. Ben Stansall / AFP/Getty Images

Mahoney told the committee on Wednesday: "The French authorities alerted us to the presence of that boat...at which point it was well within French territorial waters," he said. "It may never be possible to say with absolute accuracy whether that boat was in U.K. waters or French waters prior to that."

Another survivor, Mohamed Isa Omar, told the BBC he heard at least one passenger make contact with U.K. authorities as the boat sank.

"Our mobiles were already in the water," Omar said. "But one of us had his mobile still working, he called, and the [British] authorities told him to send the location. But before he does that, the mobile went into the water, too, and we could not send anything.''

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed legislation that would give authorities patrolling the English Channel the power to turn away boats carrying migrants. The Nationality and Borders Bill would also make it more difficult for people who enter the country illegally to claim asylum and allow asylum-seekers to be screened abroad.

But the Joint Committee on Human Rights, a cross-party panel that includes members from both houses of Parliament, said Wednesday that "a policy of pushbacks" would probably conflict with international human rights law and maritime law.

"Pushbacks are known to endanger lives at sea," the committee said in a report. "This is even more so when dealing with people on small, unseaworthy vessels, in a busy shipping lane, often with rough waters, without appropriate lifesaving equipment, as is the case for migrants in small boats in the Channel."

More than 25,000 people have reached Britain on small boats this year, up from 8,500 in 2020 and just 300 in 2018, heaping pressure on Johnson and his Conservative government to intervene.

Johnson says the Nationality and Borders Bill now making its way through Parliament will stem the tide by undercutting the business model of people smugglers who charge thousands of pounds (dollars) to make the illegal crossing.

The Home Office, which oversees border enforcement, said it is seeking to "prevent further loss of life at sea" and rejected the idea that government proposals violate international law. But human rights activists disagree, saying the government's policies put lives at risk and will do little to deter migrants.

The government's new borders bill also proposes to treat asylum-seekers who sneak into Britain more harshly than those who use the few authorized routes for refugees. The human rights committee said that is inconsistent with the U.N. Refugee Convention, which "explicitly prohibits refugees being penalized for unauthorized entry."

Labour lawmaker Harriet Harman, who chairs the committee, said the government's plans wouldn't deter crossings and would make the frigid seas even more dangerous.

"Current failures in the immigration and asylum system cannot be remedied by harsher penalties and more dangerous enforcement action," she said.

Migrants, Boat, England, Capsized
A survivor of a deadly migration accident in the English Channel said they called English and French authorities for help after their boat capsized but was told by both sides to call the other. Above, a group of people thought to be migrants are helped ashore by lifeboat crew members after arriving on a dinghy at a beach in Dungeness, in southeast England on November 20, 2021. Gareth Fuller/PA/AP Photo