Channel migrant 999 calls downgraded days before 2021 mass drowning, docs reveal

People on a small boat crossing the Channel between France and UK heading towards the port of Dover. Photo: Christian Offenberg / Alamy Stock Photo

999 calls from as many as four small boats carrying 155 people across the Channel were graded not in need of urgent rescue

Reports Aaron Walawalkar, Liberty Investigates journalist; Harriet Clugston, Liberty investigates editor; and Mark Townsend, the Observer’s Home Affairs Editor.


HM Coastguard downgraded several 999 calls from migrants pleading for help while crossing the English Channel four days before a November 2021 mass drowning, new internal documents reveal.

Call handlers categorised 999 and other emergency calls from distressed passengers on as many as four reported small boats carrying 155 people as less serious and not in need of urgent rescue, according to analysis of coastguard incident logs obtained by the Observer and Liberty Investigates. This included one where callers said babies were aboard and in which a coastguard helicopter observed passengers did not have enough lifejackets.

The records – disclosed after a 10-month freedom of information battle – contain no confirmation whether rescue boats were launched and the passengers appear unaccounted for.

A further six reports of small boats from passing ships, the French coastguard and a charity were also deemed lower priority.

All 10 occurred on 20 November 2021, four days before 27 people died when their dinghy sank.

Almost all were known to be in UK waters, with the location of the remaining cases unclear to coastguard operators.

It follows findings in an investigation by the Observer and Liberty Investigates earlier this year that the coastguard “effectively ignored” reports of 19 migrant boats over four separate days in the weeks before the 24 November 2021 mass drowning.

It is not known whether the 24 November incident was also downgraded, and it has not been possible to examine logs from this date as it is under investigation. An official Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) report is due out next week (9 November).

Maritime experts say the new documents raise further questions over breaches of procedure and international law.

One former senior coastguard source said they were “deeply saddened” by what they saw, while an independent search and rescue consultant said there was a clear theme of migrant vessel incidents in UK waters being incorrectly treated as less urgent, and “being closed off with no information the vessel or people are safe”.

A spokesperson for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which runs HM Coastguard, MCA said it had aerial resources sweeping the Channel and “no vessel was abandoned.” All incidents in UK waters will be graded in accordance with international protocols and it would be inappropriate to comment further amid ongoing investigations, they added.

Yet the logs have raised further questions about under-resourcing in the period immediately before the 2021 disaster. Two survivors have accused the UK and French coastguards of wasting crucial hours passing the buck over who should conduct the rescue.

At times only three operational staff were on duty in the Dover control room on 20 November, dealing with at least 110 reports of small boats, according to documents seen by reporters. Staff must analyse reports and coordinate rescues, all while documenting steps taken and their reasoning.

Yet many of the 82 logs disclosed were so sparse they gave experts the impression staff may have been overwhelmed.

“In less than a minute the situation on board these unsuitable boats can change, and so downgrading can be dangerous.”

Graham Warlow, former coastguard watch manager

Maria Thomas, a solicitor at Duncan Lewis representing a survivor and families of 18 people who died in the 24 November drowning, said the “extremely concerning” findings made clear the need for a full and independent statutory enquiry into the tragedy, beyond the MAIB report, “so that the families can finally get the answers they have waiting nearly two years for”.

Labour MP Olivia Blake, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on migration, also called for the findings to be investigated, adding the coastguard must have the resources it needs to respond appropriately to distress calls.

Charities Care4Calais and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) said it was shocking and unacceptable that urgent calls including those involving children have been downgraded. But JCWI director of communications Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah said “the blame should be squarely placed where it lies – in the chain of government policy that forces people to cross in boats in the first place while simultaneously underfunding the coastguard”.

Coastguard policy dictates all “migrant vessels” should be graded as in “distress”, meaning they require “immediate assistance”, if in UK waters.

In 2021, downgrading to the less severe “alert” category, where immediate rescue becomes non-mandatory, was permitted once staff gathered enough information against a list of 15 criteria, including whether passengers asked for help, the vessel’s condition, and availability of lifejackets and fuel to complete the journey.

The rules have since been tightened, restricting the circumstances where downgrading can happen.

“In less than a minute the situation on board these unsuitable boats can change, and so downgrading can be dangerous,” said Graham Warlow, a former coastguard watch manager who reviewed the records. “It’s not unreasonable to assume the changes to this guidance following the tragedy may reflect concerns over incident handling at the time.”

An incident log records a 999 caller's request for help while on a small boat on 20 November 2021. Credit: FOI

One incident identified by this investigation began at around 7.30am as a flurry of calls came in from a boat reportedly carrying 25 people, including women and babies, who were struggling with cold conditions after being at sea for five hours.

“Its too cold theres ladies to sick babies [sic,]” the caller is recorded as saying.

Over an hour later, Dover downgraded the incident to the “alert” phase after a helicopter spotted the boat – crowded  with 20 people of whom half had lifejackets, and apparently not on course to reach Folkestone for another six hours – and reported: “Nobody [is] in distress.”

Records suggest passengers continued to make calls until 9.53am but no rescue attempt is recorded, nor is there any record of the vessel being monitored or passengers arriving safely.

Operators closed the incident, recording they were “satisfied they would have been found” given the volume of traffic throughout the day.

Asked about the outcome of the incident, the MCA said there was “no SAR [search and rescue] requirement”.

“On the basis of the little evidence we have from the logs I do not see that the [procedure] has been followed in this case,” claimed a senior former coastguard source who assessed that at least six of the 15 criteria for downgrading had not been met.

The source, who requested anonymity, added: “The boat should have been monitored until its occupants were known to be safe. But the logs […] are so poor that we cannot be sure this was not done any more than we can that it was.”


A coastguard incident log shows a 999 call from a small boat, reportedly carrying babies, being downgraded following a visual assessment by a helicopter. Credit: FOI

Three other reports based on calls for help from migrants resulted in an immediate non-emergency “monitoring” grading. One such call came in at 6.28am from a boat reportedly carrying 45 people, including children, all said to be without lifejackets. The incident was never upgraded to “distress”.

“Help help help,” the caller is recorded to have told the operator. “Fillinh [sic] with water – we die […] we see Dover.”

After nine hours without any updates a coordinator marked the incident as finished, writing: “No further information, [last known position] not known/no longer valid.”

Images from a video taken during Amjad's crossing show people huddled together on the dinghy

The logs also shed new light on an incident previously highlighted by Liberty Investigates, where a passenger known as Amjad claimed both UK and French call handlers refused to rescue him after he ran out of fuel near the maritime boundary at about 6am.

The newly released logs reveal the French relayed coordinates he shared via Whatsapp to their UK counterparts at 7.32am and again at 8am which were both in UK waters.

Yet it was not until 9.23am that the UK upgraded the incident from “monitoring” to “distress”, shortly before a French lifeboat recovered the boat following the intervention of a charity.

The log contains no evidence of coordination between the two coastguards, which international law requires, beyond the initial report. The MCA said it assessed the report as having “no SAR requirement”.

The government was also approached for comment.

This article was co-published with the Observer.