Fears UK coastguards left children adrift on small boats before Channel tragedy

A family is helped to shore as a group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dungeness, Kent, by the RNLI following a small boat incident on 20 November 2021. Credit: PA / Gareth Fuller

File photo dated 20/11/21 of a group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dungeness, Kent, by the RNLI following a small boat incident in the Channel. The Government should scrap plans to turn back migrant boats at sea because they "endanger
New evidence lays bare how under-resourced rescuers were 'overwhelmed' and sparks calls for an investigation into fate of children reported at sea

Reports Aaron Walawalkar and Harriet Clugston for Liberty Investigates, and Mark Townsend for the Guardian.


It was 6am on a cold November morning, and a Dover coastguard was listening to a baby crying down the phone. “Please come quick, we are going to die,” a passenger aboard the small migrant vessel traversing the English Channel begged, in one of several calls for help after the distressed infant was held to the handset. Their engine was struggling and they were taking on water, they claimed, 10 kilometres from land.

Ten hours passed without any record of coastguards attempting to locate and rescue the vessel, according to internal logs obtained by The Guardian and Liberty Investigates following a freedom of information battle. Staff closed the incident shortly before 4pm, with no evidence they attempted to establish the safety of the passengers.

The incident was one of nine recorded on 20 November 2021 in which the fate of potentially dozens of children reported aboard migrant boats in the Dover Straits is shrouded in ambiguity – four days before at least 27 people, including three children, drowned when their dinghy sank during the worst Channel disaster for decades. The “shocking” revelations have prompted Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner for England, to today call for a full investigation into the search and rescue (SAR) response to small boat crossings and the safeguarding of youngsters.

“Children crossing the Channel on small boats are extremely vulnerable, and have been given little or no say in the dangerous journey they are being taken on,” she said.

A Dover coastguard writes in the log of a 999 call from a small boat that the "[first informant] put the telephone to a crying baby". Credit: MCA, FOI

Barnardo’s chief executive Lynn Perry added the charity was deeply concerned about the grave risk to children’s lives.

An official report into the 24 November 2021 sinking by the Marine Accident Investigations Branch (MAIB) late last year found the rescue attempt was hindered by confusion arising from too few staff processing emergency calls in the Dover control room, poor planning and a lack of aerial surveillance owing to bad weather.

Much of the underlying evidence examined by the MAIB – whose scope focussed largely on the 24 November – remains secret. But a lawyer representing survivors argued it failed to investigate “potential systemic failings”.

“The limited scope of the previous inquiry does not provide reassurance that other children will not face similar risks to their lives in future,” added Ms Longfield, who recently founded the children-focused think tank Centre for Young Lives.

Reporters have examined a cache of over 100 internal coastguard logs from four days earlier on 20 November 2021, one of the busiest crossing days before the disaster, identifying at least nine incidents where children were reported aboard small boats in or suspected to be in UK waters, but where no rescue attempt is recorded.

While the MAIB found rescuers at the time considered some migrant callers would falsely exaggerate their circumstances, the logs from 20 November suggest in three cases call handlers could hear children crying.

Crossings had been ramping up since 2018 and by late 2021 smugglers were advising migrants to make repeated 999 calls once in British waters, the MAIB report said. This made it harder for operators to determine which calls were from boats they had already deployed rescue crews to, and which were new reports.

Coastguards must document steps taken to coordinate rescues in the logs. But maritime SAR experts who reviewed them, including a former senior coastguard, found many were so sparse they gave the sense staff were “effectively overwhelmed”. All the evidence points to “carnage” in the control room, one said.

The Observer and Liberty Investigates have previously highlighted how HM Coastguard also downgraded 999 calls from migrants crossing the channel days before the disaster, potentially breaching its policy to treat all small boats in UK waters as requiring “immediate assistance”.

HM Coastguard has primacy for search and rescue, but does not have any of its own rescue boats in the Channel. It mostly relies on tasking a fleet of Border Force patrol vessels – which were deemed unsuitable for rescuing children in a Home Office-commissioned independent review – and, less frequently, the RNLI.

“There is no evidence in [the Government’s] own records … that the UK services were able to respond adequately to this extraordinary but, by now, predictable emergency,"

A former senior coastguard, who requested anonymity

Between 5am and 7am on 20 November a team of three in the Dover coastguard control room received 27 calls from small boats, logs suggest. Some appear to have been diverted to other control rooms, leaving staff in different parts of the country piecing together fragments of information from the same boat.

One such incident saw repeated 999 calls from a boat carrying 45 people – on which there were said to be “kids crying” – answered by a Falmouth-based coastguard at 6.28am, followed by one at Dover at 6.39am, and another in Fareham at 6.49am.

It took almost four hours to establish the calls came from the same telephone number. It was closed after 15 hours with no updates on attempts to locate and rescue the vessel, one of many where notes suggest operators closed incidents when they could not be certain passengers had arrived safely.

In multiple logs staff said they were “satisfied they would have been found” based on the number of rescue crews on task throughout the day.

A spokesperson for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which runs HM Coastguard, said it had aerial resources sweeping the Channel during the day and “no vessel was left abandoned”.

But in two of the incidents there is no evidence of a rescue being launched even after the boats were spotted by helicopter or drone, including one reported to contain five children. When pressed the MCA told reporters there was “no SAR requirement”.

Asked whether it had established the safety of all reported passengers, the MCA spokesperson said it would be “inappropriate” to comment pending ongoing investigations.

There were at least 118 reports of small boat activity that day. The former senior coastguard described this as a “major incident” and said the records suggest staff were forced to triage reports.

“There is no evidence in [the Government’s] own records … that the UK services were able to respond adequately to this extraordinary but, by now, predictable emergency,” they said.

The MCA recognised in early November 2021 – just weeks before the tragedy, and after years of escalating numbers of crossings – that there was a risk of deaths due to HM Coastguard becoming “overwhelmed”. Plans to increase the size of Dover’s team were not scheduled for completion until March 2022.

Some changes have been made following the tragedy. Policies require coastguards to record actions taken prior to closing off incidents, while the number of operational staff at Dover has increased sixfold, from four to 24.

An independent inquiry will further examine the disaster.

Yet in the meantime the number of fatal incidents in the Channel has reportedly increased, most within French waters, according to research by NGO Alarm Phone which attributes the rise to French policing measures funded by the UK.

Among the most recent victims was 14-year-old Obada Abd Rabbo, one of five who died on 14 January this year.

A version of this report was published with The Guardian.