Global Human Rights Defence

French and British Authorities Sued for Manslaughter After 27 Migrants Die in the Channel
Source: Sky News, 25th November 2021

Department: Europe
Author: Elia Duran-Smith

Introduction

The largest ever single recorded loss of life in the English Channel took place on November 24th 2021, according to the International Organisation for Migration and the French Interior Minister (Euronews, 2021; News Wires, 2021). This was the culmination of a marked rise in Channel crossings in 2021, with triple the number of migrants attempting the perilous journey compared to 2020 (News Wires, 2021). This article will firstly outline the events of the tragedy itself and the alleged failures of the French and British authorities to avoid it. It will then explain French NGO Utopia 56’s actions against French and British authorities, and finally provide an explanation of the calls for a public inquiry by the relatives of the victims in the UK.

Twenty Fourth of November 2021

The tragedy occurred when a boat carrying a group of migrants capsized in the Channel after they made calls to both the French and British authorities, who failed to take action to save them. The victims were 16 Iraqi Kurds, including a 16 year old and a 7 year old, 4 Afghan men, 3 Ethopians, an Iranian Kurd, a Somalian woman and an Egyptian man. The adults ranged from 19 to 46 years old (News Wires, 2021). The 2 survivors said that the victims made distress calls to the British and French authorities while their canoe deflated and the boat’s engine failed. The French authorities stated that the boat was in British waters so they did not have the responsibility to act, and vice versa. Their accounts were corroborated by the members of the victims’ families who were also in contact with them as the boat crossed the Channel (News Wires, 2021). Utopia 56 also confirmed this damning accusation, saying they received voicemails from those onboard the canoe, telling them “if I call 999 they say call France and when we call France they tell us to contact the UK. Both couldn’t care less”. In addition, Utopia 56 said they had a “judicial source” who could attest that “the ongoing investigation has already confirmed the existence of these calls(Euronews, 2021).

The tragedy has culminated in the French and British governments accusing each other of not making sufficient efforts to deter migrants and refugees from crossing the Channel, rather than each taking responsibility. Meanwhile, European migration officials have announced that they will send a plane to observe the Channel for smuggling activity (News Wires, 2021).

Manslaughter lawsuit

On December 17th, Utopia 56 filed lawsuits against the maritime prefect of the Channel and North Sea, the Regional Operational Centre for Surveillance and Rescue of Gris-Nez in the Pas-de-Calais and the British Coast Guard – alongside “any other perpetrator, co-perpetrator or accomplice that the investigation would come to determine” – for failing to take sufficient measures to avoid these deaths (Utopia 56, 2021; Euronews, 2021). The NGO group said it “intends that investigations be carried out to determine the responsibilities of the French and British rescue services in this tragedy”. Nikolai Posner, spokesman for Utopia 56, said the lawsuit also aimed to “remind our governments that it is urgent to question the policies at our borders, which take human lives every day(News Wires, 2021).

In an interview with Democracy Now! (2022), Posner explained that 

There is a system of mistreatment and violence that is installed by our politics, that we deeply have to change and that push to those tragedies. So, at the moment, what the state does, just after the tragedy, is that they point at the smugglers. But the smugglers are consequences of the politics that are harming. So, as soon as we saw — or, as soon as we saw that something was actually missing into the secure — well, the response to save the people, we wanted to make sure that this will mark a point, to say to our governments that people are looking at the situation, and we will not let this happen again and again”.

He also summarised the reasons why migrants, refugees and asylum seekers make this dangerous journey: 

For most of them, it’s to run away from the system that is not welcoming in Europe at the moment. You have to know that in Europe there are some procedures that make it almost impossible for you to apply in another country than the first one you arrived, which is, for most of the time, Italy, Greece or Spain. And then, as soon as you move to another country, this country must send you back to the first country you arrived. So, at the moment, actually, England becomes the last exit for the people to actually being able to apply for asylum” (Democracy Now!, 2022).

Posner said the manufactured conditions in France for asylum seekers, in particular, also intend to dissuade them from trying to settle in France. This is because “if you apply for asylum, you know that you will spend days and weeks and months in the street before you get actually a shelter, when, actually, if you cross to England, but also different other countries of Europe, you will get a shelter. You will get protection” (Democracy Now!, 2022). 

He added that, 

That’s our strategy, is to push the people away, a maximum, for the next one to not come again. But this doesn’t work, because, for now, because of the situation of those regions in the world, we are still in a better situation, and we will probably stay that way. So, if we really want the people to not come, should we become in a worse situation than Afghanistan or Sudan?” (Democracy Now!, 2022).

He said that, ultimately, the only way to overcome this situation and to avoid more tragedies occurring in the future “is to actually welcome the people and to behave with care. But this, at the moment, sadly, our governments are not ready” (Democracy Now!, 2022).

The lawyer representing Utopia 56, Emmanuel Daoud, made a statement, saying the victims and their families are owed truth and transparency” by the French and British authorities who “did not come to the aid of people who were in distress, and from that moment we consider that the question of responsibility – in the criminal sense of the term – has arisen” (Taylor and Henley, 2021).

Both Posner and Daoud have thus stressed the fact that the authorities of both countries had the obligation under international humanitarian law to save these people and failed to do so (Democracy Now!, 2022).

Public Inquiry in the UK

In London, the families of the victims from Iraqi Kurdistan have launched proceedings against the British authorities (News Wires, 2021). Zana Mamand Mohammad, brother of Twana who is believed to have perished in the tragic incident but has not been found, said “I want to open this case so this humanitarian disaster does not go unmarked. I need to get justice and I need to find my brother whether he is dead or alive(Taylor and Henley, 2021). Mohammad also explained that “they all had phones, internet and SIM cards, and [the French and British authorities] could have located them before they drowned. And they actually called the French police and the British police, so we feel that the police betrayed us, because they went to them 12 hours after they drowned” (Democracy Now!, 2022).

Maria Thomas, the lawyer representing the relatives said of the proceedings: 

“We have submitted pre-action correspondence to the British government requesting that a public inquiry is established to determine whether the acts or omissions of the British agencies involved in coordinating and executing the search and rescue mission on 24 November resulted in breaches of the European convention on human rights.

“Independent expert evidence obtained on behalf of our clients indicates that there may have been serious failings, which could have contributed to the significant loss of life. We are expecting the government’s response by 3 January 2022” (Taylor and Henley, 2021). 

At time of writing, there have been no reports so far of the British government’s response.

Conclusion

It remains to be seen whether these actions taken by Utopia 56 and the relatives of the victims will result in justice for those who died unnecessarily as the political environments on both sides of the Channel appear unwilling to acknowledge responsibility or the need for a shift in their outlook and strategies towards this ever-worsening crisis. This tragedy has, however, shed some light on the gravity of this situation and may prompt further action to hold to account the authorities which continue to neglect their duties under international humanitarian law.

Sources and further reading:

News articles

Euronews. (2021, December 20). NGO sues French and British authorities over Channel migrant boat tragedy. https://www.euronews.com/2021/12/20/ngo-sues-french-and-british-authorities-over-channel-migrant-boat-tragedy 

News Wires. (2021, December 20). France, UK authorities face manslaughter lawsuit over deaths of migrants in Channel boat tragedy. France 24

https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20211220-france-uk-authorities-face-manslaughter-lawsuit-over-deaths-of-27-migrants-in-channel-capsizing 

Taylor, D., & Henley, J. (2021, December 20). ‘Serious failings’ during rescue may have contributed to Channel deaths. The Guardian.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/dec/20/channel-deaths-report-finds-failings-in-rescue-effort-as-legal-action-begins 

Websites

Democracy Now! (2022, January 4). France and U.K. Sued for Manslaughter After 27 Migrants Seeking Help Drowned in English Channel.

https://www.democracynow.org/2022/1/4/migrant_death_lawsuit_france_england 

Utopia 56. (2021, December 20). Drame dans la Manche: Utopia 56 dépose plainte pour homicide involontaire et omission de porter secours.

https://utopia56.org/drame-dans-la-manche-utopia-56-depose-plainte-pour-homicide-involontaire-et-omission-de-porter-secours/

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Kenza Mena
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Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

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