Coastguard ‘effectively ignored’ 19 reports of small boats before November 2021 tragedy

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Screenshot of map plotting 14 'effectively ignored' reported small boats
In November 2021, 440 people appear to have been left adrift despite their boats being reported to the coastguard

Reports Aaron Walawalkar, Liberty Investigates journalist; Eleanor Rose, Liberty Investigates Editor; and Mark Townsend, Home Affairs Editor at the Observer.


Hundreds of vulnerable migrants appear to have been abandoned to their fates after the UK coastguard “effectively ignored” reports of small boats in distress during the days leading up to the worst Channel disaster for decades when at least 27 people died, an investigation reveals.

Around 440 appear to have been left adrift after the coastguard did not send any rescue vessels to 19 reported small boats carrying migrants in UK waters, according to an analysis of internal records alongside marine data by the Observer and Liberty Investigates.

Experts said the failure to act appears to breach international law.

The incidents occurred across four dates in early November 2021, weeks ahead of the mass drowning when a dinghy carrying migrants capsized in the worst Channel disaster for 30 years.

Although documents relating to the November 24 tragedy have yet to be released ahead of an official report into the incident, the new documents raise questions over under-staffing in the coastguard and a lack of vital resources in the period immediately before the disaster.

Internal documents seen by reporters also reveal that the numbers of operators on shift in the Dover control room fell below internal targets that month, including on the night of the tragedy.

Last night MPs called for an urgent review of coastguard staffing levels and a fundamental review into its available resources.

“No government that cares about human rights would allow staffing levels to drop so low that it endangers human lives,” said Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union.

Excerpts from the Maritime Coastal Agency's logs detailing smugglers throwing people off boats
An extract from coastguard logs details a report of people thrown overboard by traffickers

UK coastguard policy is to treat all reports of migrant vessels as distress incidents, meaning they require “immediate assistance” – and should be found and rescued.

But records from 3 November 2021 show incidents were closed down without staff first “[establishing] the safety of those on board”, according to a former senior coastguard who analysed them.

At least 112 people were left adrift amid delays and errors responding to five incidents that day alone.

An internal database, cross-referenced by reporters using publicly available marine data, suggests a further 14 boats carrying 328 people were not rescued on the 11, 16 and 20 November, according to experts who examined the evidence.

In these cases, the investigation cross-referenced coordinates from a coastguard database disclosed under FOI with data from the ship-tracking site Marine Traffic, confirming that no rescue boat or chopper belonging to the coastguard, Border Force or RNLI came within one nautical mile of the logged coordinates within four hours.

Five maritime experts confirmed that in the absence of an explanation from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), it was reasonable to conclude no help was sent in these 14 cases.

Reporters' analysis shows a migrant vessel was 'effectively ignored' on 20 November, 2021

It remains unclear whether or not the 440 people on the 19 reported small boats identified in this investigation survived. The MCA refused freedom of information requests for the details of outcomes, relying partly on an exemption for “vexatious” requests.

When asked for an explanation over why it had sent no boats to help on numerous occasions, a spokesperson for the MCA said it would be “inappropriate to comment further” making it impossible to explain why.

They added: “There are ongoing investigations into the UK’s emergency response to the Channel crossing fatalities and it would be inappropriate for HM Coastguard to comment further at this time.

“Our thoughts remain with the family and friends of those affected by these incidents.”

Reporters tracked down a survivor of one of the incidents whose boat was recorded in a UK coastguard spreadsheet as having been in British waters at around 8am on 20 November.

The boat, carrying 23 people, had been floating adrift after running out of fuel with Amjad (not his real name), from Iraq, claiming he only survived thanks to the intervention of the NGO Utopia 56 after UK and French call handlers each told him he was not in their waters and should call the other side.

“We were lucky,” said Amjad. “Maybe the tragedy happened because they [also] tried to call the UK and the French, [and] it was useless.”

"No government that cares about human rights would allow staffing levels to drop so low that it endangers human lives"

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union

The new revelations will add to the intense scrutiny faced by UK coastguard over its activity on 24 November. French coastguard logs, disclosed to lawyers, suggest crucial hours were wasted that night as authorities on either side of the Channel passed the buck over who should respond. The UK logs remain secret, but a full report by the MAIB is expected this summer.

Alistair Carmichael MP, home affairs spokesman for the Lib Dems, called for an “urgent review” of coastguard staffing levels driven to “crisis through underfunding and political grandstanding”.

Olivia Blake, Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam, said: “We need to review the resource available for the coastguard, but we also need a fundamental change of approach.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our operational teams stand ready to respond 365 days a year and work tirelessly to respond to every small boat incident encountered in the Channel.

“Our thoughts remain with the families of all of those who lost their lives in the tragic incident in November 2021. It would be inappropriate to comment further on this incident while investigations remain ongoing.

“We are determined to stop the gangs behind this illegal trade, and our Small Boats Operational Command is working alongside our French partners and other agencies to disrupt the people smugglers who put people’s lives at risk.”

This article was co-published with the Observer.