‘Horror beyond words’: Inside the UK coastguard in the weeks before the Channel disaster

Image: Alamy

Migrants make a small boat crossing across the Channel
Investigation reveals that understaffed Dover control room was overwhelmed by calls before 27 died at sea

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


On the afternoon of 3 November, 2021, a woman called Hampshire police. Her brother was crossing the Channel in a small boat that day, she said via a translator. But something dreadful had just happened. Twenty minutes earlier he’d texted her to say that smugglers had begun shoving passengers overboard. “Loads had been kicked off and were in the water,” fighting for their lives in the treacherous currents of the world’s busiest shipping lane.

Police passed the details to the UK coastguard and at 4.57pm an operator flagged the incident, according to internal logs obtained by the Observer and Liberty Investigates.

It’s “almost the dictionary definition” of a distress incident, especially given cold water temperatures, said a former senior coastguard officer who examined the logs. “Search and rescue action should be commenced without delay.”

Yet the documents show that no rescue action took place. For more than three hours nothing appears in the log until, finally – at 8.23pm – a mission coordinator concluded the incident was happening in French waters.

International law dictates that states take initial responsibility for any incident reported to them, even if outside their waters, until handover to another jurisdiction is confirmed.

Yet there’s no evidence in the logs, obtained under FOI, that UK operators ever attempted to contact French authorities. Staff closed the incident “pending further information”.


Three weeks later, in the early hours of November 24, a dinghy sank in the same stretch of water killing at least 27 people – the worst tragedy to take place in the Channel in decades.

Records disclosed to French lawyers reveal passengers made calls for assistance to authorities on both sides of the Channel. No help arrived.

Precisely what unfolded that night is under investigation with UK logs chronicling the disaster still secret.

However, documents obtained by the Observer and Liberty Investigates offer a glimpse inside the UK coastguard in the weeks directly before the tragedy.

An extract from coastguard logs details a report of people thrown overboard by smugglers

The evidence suggests 440 people were left to their fates as the authorities failed to send help to 19 reports of small boats in danger in UK waters on four separate days.

Internal logs from 3 November indicate no rescue was sent to five reported small boats carrying a combined 112 people. That does not include the incident when a man was described by his sister to have been kicked overboard. It’s not known if he was ever rescued.

In addition, an internal database – cross-referenced with ship-tracking data and analysed by experts – suggests the UK coastguard “effectively ignored” at least 14 more boats carrying 328 people on the 11, 16 and 20 November.

Records indicate that coastguard staff were “overwhelmed” as the numbers of operators on shift in the Dover control room fell below internal targets.

Junior officers tackled record numbers of distress calls with “very little apparent leadership and direction,” according to the former senior coastguard who reviewed the logs.

“No-one should be left unaided as their boat fills with water in one of the busiest, and most surveilled, stretches of water in the world,” said Mary Atkinson of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI).

“The UK clearly has the resources to provide sea rescue for those in need, so to hear that people’s calls for help were repeatedly ignored is heartbreaking.”

Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “We witnessed first hand the utter devastation suffered by the families of the victims of the November 21 tragedy. To hear that other small boats in distress may have effectively been ignored, and more lives put at risk, is a horror beyond words.”

Jane Grimshaw, co-founder of the group Hastings Supports Refugees, remembers the first time she greeted a small boat landing in summer 2021. A floodlit column of passengers trudged up Pett Level beach, Sussex, some with babies. They looked exhausted, “like a platoon of soldiers returning from war”, she says.

The landings weren’t new. In 2018, then home secretary Sajid Javid declared them a “major incident”.

The following year, the foreign affairs committee warned the UK’s plans to close down “robust and accessible legal routes” may force more to make the dangerous crossing.

The numbers kept on rising. In July 2020, 99 small boats were detected in the Channel; in July 2021, it rose to 130.

Grimshaw helped coordinate a network of volunteers to meet the boats with food, clothes and a friendly face. The response by the coastguard, Border Force and police seemed chaotic, she says.

Boats were held offshore for hours while officials assembled to meet them. “Nobody knew what they were doing. It was like a disaster zone.”

Across the Channel, the process for crossings was, by contrast, well-oiled.

Passengers congregated on French beaches in darkness, when calm conditions were forecast. Sometimes, though, there weren’t enough lifejackets; boats were overcrowded or unseaworthy. If things went wrong, they were told to call the police.

Under a 1979 convention, states are responsible for the search and rescue of vessels in distress, regardless of who they are or why they are there.

Due to the inherent risks of small boat crossings, the UK coastguard’s policy by 2019 was to treat all reports as distress incidents: staff should send rescue vessels.

But some people landing were telling Grimshaw they’d been at sea 18 hours. They had not been promptly rescued, she believes. “I get it – on really busy days, there aren’t enough boats to pick everybody up [immediately] – but it was happening too often,” she says.

By November, the water was colder; the situation increasingly untenable. “We all knew that what happened on the 24th was going to happen. It was inevitable.”

Carim* (not his real name), 28, from Syria, set off in a small boat on 16 November but ran out of fuel halfway. He called the UK coastguard several times, he says, but was told other boats with women and children were being prioritised. For up to three hours he waited while their dinghy deflated. A boat arrived just in time. “There was a big wave coming … they positioned their boat behind us, or it would have turned [us] over,” he says.

"I was crying so hard ... I considered myself dead"

Matin Sohrabi, who crossed the Channel in November 2021

Sobhan Ahmadi, 25, and Matin Sohrabi, 24, from Iran, travelled the same day as Carim. Smugglers struggled for half an hour to start the motor, they recall – but pressed passengers aboard anyway. In the middle of the Channel, their boat’s stalling engine struggled against rough waves.

A passenger called British authorities for assistance as others waved their lifejackets to stay visible, terrified a ferry would mow them down. The caller was seasick and struggled to send the operator their location from his phone, resorting instead to describing the ships around him.

Help arrived around three hours later. By then, passengers had all but lost hope, according to Ahmadi. “I was crying so hard,” Sohrabi adds. “I considered myself dead.”

Neither were aware that Dover’s coastguards were coping with one of their busiest shifts on record. Coastguard records indicate that at least 34 boats were intercepted in the Channel on 16 November alone, eclipsing the previous record of 32 set five days earlier.

Within the Dover control room, up to five operators worked daytime shifts that month. It was lower at night. In the early hours of the 24 November, as disaster unfolded, a log shows two operational staff on search-and-rescue duties – below the agency’s target of three. One was still a trainee.

Although officers can help remotely from other control rooms, documents indicate capacity across the network was also low. A 2013 government report devised during the coastguard’s last big restructure recommended 50 to 60 operators in the daytime during “low to medium” business, and 70 to 80 during peak demand.

During the day in November 2021, a document shows the number of staff on duty across the coastguard network ranged from 39 to 45.

There were 14 cases in an internal database where coordinates were logged but no rescue launched

A number of FoI requests were submitted to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) for further material. Most were refused, relying partly on an exemption for “vexatious” requests. Only after reporters complained to the Information Commissioner did the agency release the 3 November logs.

Intended as a comprehensive account of actions taken, the “Vision” logs reveal Dover operators handled 16 of the 62 reports of small boats received that day.

The first came at 3.40am, when police told the coastguard of a vessel carrying young children struggling against large waves. “SOME HAVE LIFEJACKETS SOME DONT [sic],” the log states.

Over an hour later, at 4.52am, a senior officer speculates the report could be a duplicate of another incident already being dealt with.


Their hunch is wrong. An update 12 hours later reveals this was a completely different boat. Twenty passengers were recovered, though it’s not clear when or how.

The former senior coastguard, who requested anonymity, said that despite being flagged as a distress incident, they didn’t see “any evidence” of it being treated as one.

In a second case at 5.11am, Kent Police informed the coastguard a boat carrying 32 people had lost power.

At 7.20am, the log suggests police were still receiving calls about it. However, there’s no update in the log until 12 hours later – 7.15pm – when officers guessed the boat could have been one of several which by now had landed unaided.

“It is not clear whether anyone actually established [these passengers’] safety,” observed the former senior coastguard.

In a later incident at 8.29am, police warned the coastguard of another boat in distress but there was no substantive update until 00.52am the next day, when a member of coastguard staff confirmed the incident couldn’t be attributed to any other case, yet closed it regardless. The log contains no record of what happened to the 13 people on board.

That day – three weeks before the mass drowning – internal documents suggest 112 people were left to their fates across five incidents.

“The operations are largely being conducted by [junior staff] with very little apparent leadership,” said the former coastguard. The close supervision required to prevent loss of life “is not evident.”

The MCA rejected reporters’ requests for Vision records from other dates, but disclosed an internal spreadsheet recording the basic details of each reported small boat crossing.

They suggest that on the busiest dates for Channel crossings in the weeks before the disaster – the 11, 16 and 20 November – there were at least 14 instances where the coordinates of a small boat were logged, but no rescue launched.

In these cases, the “assets tasked” column of the spreadsheet was left blank. By cross-referencing coordinates with data from ship-tracking site Marine Traffic, reporters confirmed no rescue boat belonging to the coastguard, Border Force or RNLI came within one nautical mile of the reports within four hours.

In four of these cases reconnaissance planes and drones entered the airspace nearby, but these aircraft are incapable of providing direct assistance to those aboard small boats.

Five maritime experts including those with inside knowledge of Border Force and UK coastguard operations confirmed that, in the absence of an explanation from the MCA, it’s reasonable to conclude no help was sent.

Reporters' analysis shows a migrant vessel was 'effectively ignored' on 20 November, 2021
For comparison, reporters' analysis shows another migrant vessel was recovered on 20 November, 2021

The agency refused requests for an interview with coastguard director Claire Hughes. A spokesperson said while their “thoughts remain” with bereaved relatives from the November 2021 tragedy, it would be “inappropriate” to comment further. They cited ongoing investigations including a Marine Accidents Investigation Branch (MAIB) inquiry into the disaster.

The response makes it impossible to explain why no rescue was sent for all of the cases. Experts said one obvious explanation would be a lack of resources.

Paul Chamberlain, a search-and-rescue expert with experience of mass casualty incidents in the Mediterranean, said: “This [data] clearly shows they are overwhelmed.”

The investigation also tracked down an individual on board one of the vessels left drifting without help. Amjad*, from Iraq, and 22 others were stranded in the Channel at 6am on 20 November after their dinghy ran out of fuel.

He called 999, he says, but the UK coastguard refused to send help on the basis he was in French waters. However, reporters have confirmed the coordinates recorded in the UK coastguard spreadsheet at 8am for Amjad’s boat were, in fact, on the British side of the sea border.

The 22-year-old then called the French coastguard. They too, he says, refused to come out, explaining he was in British waters. Finally, he contacted the Utopia 56 organisation, which called French authorities on his behalf and secured his rescue at about 10am – some four hours after his initial distress call – and by which time his boat appears to have drifted back to French waters.

In a voice note sent while waiting, he says: “Sir, we called all the numbers, they don’t answer. I don’t know what is the problem with them, what is wrong with them. They don’t want to answer us, they [are] really kidding us.”

A second voice begs: “Please, yalla (come on), please.”

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


Four days later, a dinghy carrying 34 men, women and children capsized not far from where Amjad was rescued. That night, passengers repeatedly called both French and UK authorities; both stand accused of passing the buck between them in the chaotic hours that followed.

The UK call logs remain closely guarded, but records released by French lawyers reveal screams in the background as passengers begged for help. An interim MAIB report has confirmed that, as in Amjad’s case, the dinghy reached British waters.

Most of its passengers weren’t as lucky as Amjad. French logs suggest that when the boat overturned at 3am, some drowned immediately. Others succumbed to the cold. Rescuers arrived the following afternoon, only after a private vessel reported bodies in the water. So far 27 have been recovered. Four are missing. The full MAIB report is due this summer.

The coastguard has since made changes; hiring temporary call handlers and revising guidance. Yet problems remain. In December 2022, another four died in the Channel when a dinghy began to sink.

Of more than 400 people shown in this investigation to have been left adrift across 19 incidents, it’s not known whether all survived.

Ambiguity also clouds the fate of Twana Mamand, an 18-year-old from northern Iraq who was on board the 24 November boat and whose body is among those never found.

Calling for the coastguard to be better resourced, his brother believes the Home Office’s failed approach to Channel crossings has left officials with blood on their hands.

Speaking from Iraqi Kurdistan, Zana said: “British officials have failed to save the lives many times, even though they had location of the smuggled asylum seekers. They intentionally left my brother and his friends to drown.”

Additional reporting by Jessica Purkiss, former Liberty Investigates journalist and Nicola Kelly, freelance journalist.

This article was co-published with the Observer.