Inquiry launched into deaths of 27 victims of 'worst ever Channel migrant disaster' in November 2021

9 November 2023, 00:02 | Updated: 9 November 2023, 00:10

File photo of Channel migrants
File photo of Channel migrants. Picture: Getty

By Kit Heren

The government has announced an independent inquiry into the deaths of 27 people who drowned when their boat capsized while they were crossing the English Channel in November 2021.

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Seven of the victims of the disaster on November 24 that year were women, including one who was expecting a baby. Three children were also said to be among those killed.

It is the deadliest incident involving migrant crossings in the Channel on record.

Two men escaped from the inflatable craft, which French interior minister Gerald Darmanin said was "very frail... like a pool you blow up in your garden."

The independent, non-statutory inquiry will investigate the circumstances of the deaths.

The launch of the inquiry comes after the publication of a report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) which found the boat was "wholly unsuitable and ill-equipped".

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Channel migrants
Channel migrants. Picture: Getty

The UK's search and rescue response into the incident was hampered by the lack of a dedicated aircraft carrying out aerial surveillance, the report found.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: "Today our thoughts are with the families of all those involved in the tragic events of 24 November 2021.

"I am grateful to the Marine Accident Investigation Branch for their report examining this tragic incident, and the Government will carefully consider its findings and recommendations. As the report recognises, the operational picture in the Channel has changed significantly since 24 November 2021, and I know that HM Coastguard continuously seeks to learn lessons and improve.

"Every day, hundreds of courageous responders from HM Coastguard and other UK agencies, including volunteers, stand ready to respond around the clock to every search and rescue operation involving small boats in the Channel. This incident reinforces the scale of the task they face.

Channel migrants
Channel migrants. Picture: Getty

"The inquiry I have announced today will allow a thorough and independent investigation into the circumstances of the deaths to take place, further to the MAIB’s report, to give the families of the victims the clarity they deserve. I know that the Coastguard will engage fully and openly with it."

The boat is thought to have "collided with a large ship" which a local French newspaper said was a "container ship", causing the boat to deflate.

A number of suspected people smugglers were arrested north of Dunkirk near the Belgian border.

The only way passengers could call for help was via mobile phone, according to the MAIB report.

The fact that "multiple boats" were trying to cross the Channel and each made several distress calls made it "extremely challenging for HM Coastguard to locate and identify discrete boats".

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At the time of the accident, a number of HM Coastguard "capacity enhancements" had been identified but were not in place, the MAIB said.

The report recommended that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and Border Force develop procedures to ensure "effective surveillance" of the Dover Strait is possible when aircraft are unavailable.

It also recommended that the MCA works with the French authorities to agree ways of improving "the transfer of information" between the UK and French coastguard agencies during migrant crossings.

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Andrew Moll, chief inspector of marine accidents, said: "This was a tragic accident in which many lives were lost.

"Our investigation has closely examined the events on the night to understand, as best we can, what went wrong so lessons can be learned to ensure a dreadful night like this is not repeated.

"The events of November 24 2021 were complex with multiple inflatable boats that were unsuitable and ill-equipped for the journey attempting to cross the Dover Strait to England."

More than 100,000 people have made the perilous crossing over the English Channel since 2018. Rishi Sunak has made a pledge to cut the number of people trying to cross by targeting the people-smuggling gangs who organise the journeys.

The Prime Minister made an agreement with France last year in a bid to slash the number of crossings.

Some 26,699 migrants have arrived in the UK via the Channel this year, according to the latest government figures.

This is a third down on the equivalent figure at this point last year, which was 39,948.