Channel dinghy tragedy: bereaved families criticise investigation

Channel dinghy tragedy: bereaved families criticise investigation

Marine Accident Investigation Branch criticised for slow progress in determining how last November’s tragedy occurred

A French volunteer sea rescue organisation boat carrying the bodies of some of those who drowned arriving at Calais harbour on 24 November 2021

Bereaved families who lost relatives in a mass drowning in the Channel a year ago have criticised the UK body investigating the tragedy for a lack of progress in determining how and why dozens of lives were lost.

An interim report from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch published on Thursday confirmed that the boat had reached UK waters.

Initially, officials thought the tragedy was outside their jurisdiction because the bodies and survivors were found in the French part of the Channel.

But an investigation into the British search and rescue response was launched in January “when it became evident that some of the events relating to this loss of life had occurred inside UK waters”, the report states.

It adds that when officials did send out search and rescue services, there was no sign of the boat or its passengers.

In the incident on 24 November 2021, 31 people drowned after repeatedly making SOS calls to French and UK emergency services.

Of those onboard the overcrowded dinghy, 27 bodies were recovered. Four are still missing. Only two people survived the disaster, which was the worst maritime incident of its kind in the Channel for 30 years.

Speaking through their lawyer on the first anniversary of the tragedy, the families expressed dismay about the interim two-page report from MAIB.

The bereaved families are further distressed because on Wednesday they received generic letters via text or WhatsApp from MAIB that referred to neither them nor their lost loved ones by name, asking them to provide evidence to the investigation such as final phone conversations they might have had with their relatives when the dinghy started to deflate in the early hours of 24 November. Relatives say they do not understand why it has taken MAIB a year to make contact with them.

Maria Thomas, of Duncan Lewis solicitors, said: “There has been no promptness and no transparency in the legal case the bereaved families are bringing. Promptness is critical because it ensures preservation of evidence, and it is concerning that it has taken this long to contact the families.

“Families were sent depersonalised letters without their names or the name of the relative they lost, on the day before the anniversary, making them feel the investigators don’t care about them. This has further eroded their trust in the MAIB investigation.”

She added: “We need to have one independent investigation into what happened that night. The English and French sides should have access to each other’s records from the night of the drownings. If there are systemic issues that contributed to large loss of life that night, these need to be identified in an independent inquiry to ensure that a tragedy like this does not happen again.”

A spokesperson for the MAIB said: “On the anniversary of the accident our thoughts are with those who lost loved ones in this tragedy. While it may not be possible to fully understand precisely what happened at the time of the accident, it is important that we examine whether the UK’s emergency response was appropriate that night once it became apparent that migrant boats might be in distress in UK waters.

“The purpose of our investigation is to improve safety and if lessons can be learned, and if deemed appropriate, we will make recommendations to address the issues identified. Our investigation is ongoing, and we expect to publish it in the early summer 2023.”

The spokesperson added that tracing victims’ families was “a complex process”.