Home Office acknowledges people involved in tragedy may have tried to call for help as investigations continue
The occupants of a boat that sank last week in the Channel causing the deaths of at least 27 people may have tried to contact the UK authorities, the Home Office has acknowledged.
Dan O’Mahoney – the clandestine channel threat commander – said he could not say with any certainty if those onboard had rung the UK for help. Speaking to parliament’s human rights committee, O’Mahoney said HM Coastguard was now investigating.
The two survivors from the incident last Wednesday claim those onboard made repeated calls to the British and French authorities as their flimsy dinghy began to sink.
According to one of the survivors, the British responded by telling them to get in touch with the French.
Relatives of one of those who died, Twana Mamand Muhammad, told the Guardian he was aware of the dangers of the Channel crossing and had taken emergency numbers with him before he set off, including 999.
It was his seventh attempt to reach the UK, they added.
The Guardian contacted HM Coastguard on Tuesday and asked about the claims in the survivors’ account.
A spokesperson said it had received more than 90 alerts from the Channel last Wednesday, including emergency calls. They added: “We responded to all of them.”
But HM Coastguard has repeatedly refused to clarify whether it received a distress call or calls from the sinking boat in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
The group set off from the French coast near Dunkirk at about 10pm on Tuesday evening. Their dinghy ran into difficulties about three-and-a-half hours later, when its right side began to deflate. The motor then stopped working.
They said that two people on the boat who speak fluent English made at least two calls to the UK, begging to be rescued.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, appointed O’Mahoney last year as “small boat commander”. According to the Home Office, his brief is to make the Channel route of entry to the UK “unviable” for the growing numbers of migrants setting off from Calais and Dunkirk.
Asked by Harriet Harman MP on Wednesday about the survivors’ claim, O’Mahoney said: “At this stage I can’t tell you with any certainty whether we definitely received a call from that boat or not. It is a question for the coastguard and they are working through it.”
He said HM Coastguard responded as soon as the French launched a search and rescue operation, after French fishers spotted bodies floating in the water. This was at 12.58pm on Wednesday – about 11 hours after the survivors claim they first raised the alarm.
Speaking to the Kurdish station Rudaw, Muhammad – a survivor from Somalia – said one person in the boat who spoke fluent English rang the UK authorities and the person on the other line requested their location. “Before we could give it we fell into the water,” he said.
The Home Office denies claims that British authorities failed to respond and said there was “no evidence” to the contrary. The French launched a huge search and rescue operation, which the British authorities joined, sources said. The UK Coastguard sent a helicopter to assist once a distress signal was sent out, they added.
According to the second survivor, Muhammad Ibrahim, those onboard made several frantic attempts to raise the alarm. The boat began to sink three-and-a-half hours into the crossing, he told Rudaw, with the occupants debating whether to press on or turn back.
“The right side of the boat was losing air. Some people were pumping air into it and others were bailing the water from the boat,” Ibrahim, 21, told Rudaw, speaking from hospital in Calais, where he was recovering from hypothermia. “Then after a bit, we called the French police and said: ‘Help us, our pump stopped working.’”
“Then [we] sent [our] location to the French police and they said: ‘You’re in British waters.’ So we called Britain. They said call the French police,” Ibrahim claimed. “Two people were calling – one was calling France and the other was calling Britain.” The calls were made in English, he confirmed.
Ibrahim claimed the boat had reached the UK zone by the time it started sinking.
“The British police didn’t help us. Then, as we were slowly drowning, the people lost hope and let go. Then the waves took us to back to France.” He added: “Britain should have come onboard and rescued us. They didn’t help us or do anything for us.”
O’Mahoney told the committee that it might be impossible to show whether the boat was ever in UK waters before eventually being located in French waters. “To manage your expectations though, chair, it may never be possible to say with absolute accuracy whether that boat was in UK waters or French waters prior to that,” he said.
One of those who is said to have rang the UK for help was Mubin Hussein, 16, from the Iraqi Kurdistan town of Darbandikhan, Ibrahim said. Mubin was on the boat together with his mother, Khazel, 45, and sisters Hadia, 22, and Hasti, seven. Khazal’s husband, Rezgar, said his last contact with his family was at about 10pm on Tuesday, adding: “After that I didn’t hear from them again.”
Relatives of the dead are now making a formal complaint accusing the UK government of negligence. Zana – whose brother Twana perished – has compiled a letter signed by 11 relatives. They claim they were tracking the boat’s progress via Facebook Messenger in real time and believe it had reached the UK maritime zone.
The French authorities have formally denied receiving distress calls. No details have been given pending a criminal investigation.
The families say some of those onboard had British sim cards in their phones. The network connection that night was good and clear, they add.
As the boat drifted after its motor broke and lost more air, the passengers, including children, slipped into the water, Ibrahim said. They clung to the deflated dinghy and each other and cried out: “Please God, rescue us!” By dawn, as the half-sunk dinghy floated back towards France, most were dead.
“Everyone could take it until sunrise, then when the light shone, no one could take it any more and they gave up on life,” Ibrahim said. “One by one, they let go of each other and the boat.”