The British Coastguard’s reported neglect and downgradingof SOS calls and pleas for help from sea migrants and asylum seekers in the English Channel are a serious abandonment of responsibilities and a grave violation of International Law that puts lives in grave danger, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor said in a statement today. Such actions are particularly in violation the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).

A recent report by Liberty Investigate and the Observer showsthe British Coastguard ignoring international maritime law and leaving migrants in unseaworthy boats in the English Channel to the fate of the sea.

States have the obligation to coordinate search and rescue (SAR) missions in their own waters, to coordinate SAR missions with other nations, and render assistance to any person found at sea and proceed with all possible speed.

On the contrary, His Majesty’s Coastguard has been violating these obligations in the UK and surrounding waters. These violations are committed by HM Coastguard through downgrading 999 calls (emergency calls) from “in distress” to only “alert” which results in deeming calls not in need of urgent rescue. These violations have been documented by a few weeks before the mass drowning on the 24th of November 2021 in the English Channel.

Another way HM Coastguard violates international law is when they receive emergency calls from boats in French waters but ignore them as they do not consider them their responsibility. International maritime law obliges states initially receiving a report of an incident to take responsibility, even if not in their waters, until the case has been confirmed to be handed over to another jurisdiction. The Observer’s investigation of HM Coastguard log shows such an incident, yet there’s no evidence that the coastguard personnel contacted or tried to contact the French authorities and left the case file as “pending further information” with no other actions conducted.

The English Channel is known for its extreme tidal currentsreaching up to 13 knots which poses an immense threat to boats and persons in the water. Hence, an imminent SAR mission should have been initiated by HM Coastguard.

Such incidents are the result of underfunding the coastguard and lack of capacities among personnel, which in turn could be the result of the lack of political will to act and save lives at sea by the British government.

“Since the UK paradigm shift in 2022, it is unlikely that calls for a policy change, more funding for HM Coastguard and capacity building for coastguard personnel will be heard as it requires political will from the British government” said Emilie Elhauge-Thomsen, Researcher at Euro-Med Monitor.

“The UK policies implemented after these incidents, including the Rwanda asylum planBibby Stockholm, and the Illegal Migration Bill; show the opposite of having political will to live up to international law and to respect the rights of migrants and refugees. It does not leave much hope for the British Government to oversee, invest in, and hold the HM Coastguard accountable for its actions, or rather, lack of actions” she added.

Euro-Med Monitor anticipated the release of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) of the HM Coastguard logs from the mass drowning, the incident referred to as Charlie. On November 9, 2023, a 112-page long report was published. As anticipated, the report:

- Confirmed the lack of staff of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) Dover, only one senior and one junior officer, and one trainee, despite the HM Coastguard having identified the specific night to be very busy due to favorable weather conditions for crossings.

- The manual monitoring of the mobile, used to receive GPS locations over WhatsApp from migrant boat, which is not connected to the incident management system, led to two missed calls, one confirmed to be from Charlie, just around the time the passengers entered the water.

- The lack of a common reference system of MRCC Dover and Gris-Nez and effective information sharing hindered a timely deployment of SAR.

- Despite the MRCC Dover issuing a mayday for Charlie, the two vessels responding were never requested to proceed to the location of Charlie, as the MRCC deemed it as a hazard to shift the vessels position in the Channel. The MRCC had released the mayday in hope that the French vessel Flamantwould respond to assist HM Valiant, however, it was occupied.

- The rescue boat HM Valiant saved the wrong boat and ceased its search for Charlie.

From the incident logs reviewed and reported on by media outlets in the weeks leading up to the incident, Euro-Med Monitor is not surprised that the MAIB report shows similar issues of lack of staff and effective communication internally and externally. The lack of staff to monitor and handle emergency calls, and the extra staff being put on the day shift rather than the night shift, indicates a total lack of knowledge of when migrant crossings take place. The unsustainable communication platforms with passengers in unseaworthy boatsare under all critique, the mobile phone should have been under constant surveillance of an officer.

The lack of effective communication between the MRCCs indicates they are ‘passing the buck’; MRCC Dover’s mayday being ordered for Flamant to intervene, rejecting other vessels’ response, and Flamant rejecting the mayday. The MIAB report critiques the MRCC Gris-Nez for not having reported the migrant boats about to cross the median line despite Flamantshadowing them. Further, call logs indicates that HM Coastguard had asked Charlie to call MRCC Gris-Nez as they were not in British waters, hence violating international maritime law. While the report does not analyze the actions of the MRCC Gris-Nez, it indicates that the lack of communication between MRCC Gris-Nez and Dover potentially violatesUNCLOS and SOLAS requirements of an effective SAR and cooperation with neighboring states, with lethal consequence.

Charlie had never been upgraded as ‘urgent’ and in need of immediate SAR, which the MIAB argued could be due to the MRCC “rationalized incident Charlie as being another instance of exaggerated distress”. This had the consequence that when HM Valiant encountered a migrant boat in the location anticipated, despite the passengers stating they had not called the coastguard and weren’t in as much distress as expected, HM Valiant believed it had rescued the target, and concluded its search for Charlie. The MAIB stated that the acceptance of the conflicting information from the MRCC and the scene was likely due to "previous instances where migrants had provided unreliable information about the level of danger they were in". It is unacceptable that the MRCC and HM boats does not believe the passengers’ expression of distress, and they must always act accordingly with the information given, until otherwise confirmed.

While the MAIB report lays out steps taken in the aftermath, including hiring more staff and arial support, there is still a long way to go to ensure no more lives are lost in the English Channel, including mainstreaming the MRCC of Gris-Nez and Dover. 

Euro-Med Monitor calls for a legal and safe passage for people to seek asylum in the UK, without which, the UK government systematically disregard human lives. Drownings in the English Channel will not work as a deterrence measure for ‘stopping the boats’, only safe legal pathways would. The Home Office Secretary’s plan of first dealing with the small boat crisis, then establish safe and legal routes, needs to do a 180 turn, as accessible safe legal routes will deal with the ‘small boat crisis’ automatically.

Euro-Med Monitor also calls for the MRCC of Dover and Gris-Nez to uphold their obligations under the international maritime law, providing lifesaving aid to people in distress in the sea, no matter their nationality and lack of legal papers as required by SOLAS and UNCLOS, and to effectively coordinate SAR missions. The lack of effective coordination and ‘passing the buck’ have lethal consequences and will undoubtedly leave more casualties in the English Channel. Avoiding the English Channel becoming a maritime graveyard as we see in the Mediterranean must be a priority to the UK government.