A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dungeness, Kent, by the RNLI on 20 November 2021. Credit: PA / Gareth Fuller

EDITORS NOTE Children's faces have been pixelated as the PA Picture Desk has been unable to gain the necessary permission to photograph a child under 16 on issues involving their welfare. A family is helped to shore as a group of people thought to be migr
Questions about UK government’s reliance on charity after lifeboat volunteers asked to cover for Border Force to aid stricken vessel

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


An RNLI volunteer allegedly accused Border Force crews of “not doing their job,” days before a mass drowning in the English Channel, during a spat in which the charity refused a coastguard request to rescue a migrant boat.

HM Coastguard was told the RNLI crew would only launch if “you’ve got people in the water” after it was called upon to plug a gap in Border Force coverage, according to internal documents seen by the Guardian and Liberty Investigates which reveal tensions between agencies involved in rescuing small boats in the Dover Straits.

The incident took place in the early hours of 20 November 2021, days before at least 27 people died in the same stretch of water.

Some of those who died could have succumbed to shock within minutes of their dinghy capsizing in the frigid sea, according to the UK’s official investigation into the tragedy.

Newly obtained coastguard logs from the incident shows the boat – carrying 25 people, dozens of kilometres from land in UK waters – remained at sea for around three hours after the RNLI rejected two requests to recover it in place of Border Force, whose only on-duty vessel was apparently busy recovering other boats.

The news has prompted further questions over the government’s reliance on the charity to rescue small boats. A former RNLI crewman previously warned the pressure being placed on volunteers was “unsustainable”.

“It’s [Border Force] not doing their job. We are volunteers."

RNLI Volunteer, according to an internal document

The government-funded HM Coastguard is the UK agency with primary responsibility for maritime search and rescue (SAR) – but does not have any rescue vessels of its own. Its staff most commonly task Border Force to recover small boats and, less frequently, the RNLI.

A separate document suggests coastguard staff and a Ramsgate lifeboat station volunteer had a heated exchange in which the latter said the incident should be handled by Border Force – who eventually recovered the boat three hours later once another crew’s shift had started.

The volunteer is claimed to have told the coastguard: “It’s [Border Force] not doing their job. We are volunteers.

“All their crew is paid to be out its [sic] getting ridiculous […] If there’s an emergency and you’ve got people in the water we will go afloat but at the moment I know by the sound of your voice that this isn’t an emergency.”

HM Coastguard’s policy is to presume all migrant vessels in UK waters are in “imminent danger” and require “immediate assistance”.

An RNLI spokesperson said the refusal was “based on an assessment of factors that included a determination of rescue need and levels of distress”.

But an independent maritime SAR expert, who requested anonymity, said the refusal went “completely against the basic principles of maritime [SAR] and human morals.”

Details in a coastguard incident log indicate that Ramsgate lifeboat - referred to as RG3 - refused a coastguard request to rescue a small boat in Channel.

Critics said the “shocking” revelations illustrate why a forthcoming independent inquiry into the mass drowning tragedy – which lacks legal powers – must be able to “compel all parties to provide evidence”.

Olivia Blake MP, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for migration, added: “It must have the full range of statutory powers to establish and interrogate the facts – and it must be able to investigate the wider circumstances, such as the level of resource available to the RNLI and coastguard to keep people safe.”

Steve Smith, chief executive of refugee charity Care4Calais, said the latest findings revealed “tension and chaos at the heart of the UK’s rescue capacity at the time.”

He added that the government also has questions to answer over whether its lack of investment in SAR and heavy reliance on RNLI volunteers “can endanger lives.”

A Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) report into the November 2021 mass drowning found the coastguard tasked just one vessel – Border Force’s Valiant – to the stricken dinghy, which got into difficulties in the middle of the night, and there is no suggestion the RNLI refused a callout.

Unlike the RNLI, Border Force boats are not designed for search and rescue activity, the report noted, although they were the UK’s “principal assets” for responding to vulnerable migrant boats.

The location of the small boat carrying 25 people when it was reported to HM Coastguard by a passing Russian Warship at 4.30am on 20 November 2021. Credit: Google Earth Pro

The MAIB said crews from three RNLI stations recovered other migrant vessels on 24 November. Its list did not include Ramsgate, the station which refused the early morning tasking days earlier – but an RNLI spokesperson said Ramsgate’s crews were among those that responded to other migrant boat-related calls “throughout the day and night”.

Markedly fewer resources were deployed to the stricken dinghy than to another mayday incident earlier that week, when three RNLI crews were dispatched following a 999 call from a migrant claiming multiple passengers had fallen into the water, at around midday.

The log from the incident the RNLI refused to attend shows HM Coastguard received a report of a small boat in UK waters at 4.30am from a passing Russian Warship.

The log from the incident that the RNLI refused to attend shows HM Coastguard received a report of a small boat in UK waters at 4.30am from a passing Russian Warship.

Ramsgate lifeboat crew was asked to launch at 4.52am and 5.11am – refusing both times. A coastguard incident review suggests an RNLI volunteer told the coastguard: “If [Border Force] won’t attend then we won’t go afloat either.”

Coastguards discussed the refusal, then called the volunteer back to explain the reason Border Force “are not out is due to their restricted hours and no [rescue boat] available until 6am”.

The review concluded the refusal meant additional time was later spent relocating the vessel – with all passengers eventually rescued at about 8am by Border Force boat Hurricane.

An RNLI spokesperson said November 2021 was “exceptionally busy” and the demand on its volunteer crews was “unprecedented”.

They added: “Despite that – both before and after the incident in question – our volunteers continued to respond to their pagers by getting out of bed in the middle of the night, leaving their employment and leaving their families to go to help others because they believe in our core purpose of saving lives at sea,” they said, adding the RNLI is “very proud” of its relationship with SAR partners in the Channel.

The spokesperson added that the RNLI was not tasked to the fatal incident on 24 November.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which runs HM Coastguard, said it would be “inappropriate to comment” amid ongoing investigations.

The Department for Transport, which funds the coastguard, declined to comment on the resourcing of SAR in the Channel.

A version of this article was published with The Guardian.