British Channel rescue services have been accused of abandoning 38 people in distress in a dinghy in UK waters, putting their lives in grave danger..
French coastguards from the union Solidaires Douanes claim UK services told them they would begin a rescue effort but then failed to do so, allowing them to drift back into the French part of the Channel.
The incident happened on 2 January, the union claims, with the dinghy reaching the UK part of the Channel at about 5.30pm French time. It was being monitored in the Channel by the French coastguard boat Kermorvan. Soon after entering UK waters the dinghy’s engine failed and it began to drift.
The union representing French coastguards, some of whom were on the Kermorvan that night, has put out a statement condemning the UK authorities for failing to rescue the dinghy having previously given an undertaking to the French coastguard to do so. Union sources told the Guardian they had never encountered such a situation.
Rémi Vandeplanque, a French coastguard involved in the rescue operation, speaking on behalf of the union, said the situation was unprecedented for him.
He said: “When we started following them they were in French waters then we followed them into British waters. They were Border Force, British coastguard. We spoke to them on the VHS radio. They said OK they would rescue the people on the dinghy.”
He added the dinghy drifted back into French waters and those onboard tried to return to UK waters but had difficulty due to the currents, the wind and GPS failures on their phones.
“About 9pm [French time) the people on the dinghy were exhausted and afraid and frozen. We took them onboard and gave them blankets, food and hot drinks. Everyone survived. The UK didn’t push them back but let them drift,” he said.
According to Ministry of Defence data one small boat containing 44 people arrived in the UK on 2 January. On 3 January, there were no recorded small boat crossings.
French coastguards representing their union said British officials gave an undertaking to rescue the dinghy but never turned up. The dinghy drifted back into French waters where those onboard were rescued by the French coastguard and taken back to Calais.
According to the statement posted by Solidaires Douanes: “British coastguards abandoned 38 people who were trying to reach the UK.”.
It adds the incident was “a tragedy that was narrowly avoided” and says French coastguards were told by the Border Force Typhoon vessel it had no space to pick people up. However, they said would ensure the safety of the boat and that another rescue boat was on its way.
“Help never arrived,” according to the statement.
Angèle Vettorello, a volunteer with the French NGO Utopia 56, which works in northern France, was patrolling the coast that night when the 38 people rescued by the French coastguard reached the French shore.
She said: “The people rescued from the dinghy had very wet clothes. They told us that they saw on the GPS on their phones that they had crossed into UK waters. A few minutes after they crossed into UK waters their engine failed. After they arrived back in Calais around 11pm (French time) they were left in the street. One of the passengers was hospitalised with hypothermia.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “We do not comment on routine operational matters in relation to our response to small boat crossings in the Channel.”