Last Thursday an Eritrean man died after he was recovered from the Channel when the boat he and others were traveling to the UK on sank. One other person is feared missing at sea. The details are unclear and questions remain about how the authorities responded and what they will do to search for the missing person. What is clear is that once again the racist border system built up by European states to restrict the free movement of non-Europeans has taken more lives. Below we summarise the information we currently have and call for the abolition of this lethal border.
In the early hours of Thursday morning (12/08/21), a boat carrying approximately 37 people, including women and children, began to deflate and take on water in the Channel, around 25 kilometers north of Dunkerque. Because of their distance from shore, the people on board were not able to reach the emergency numbers by phone. They tried to signal for help to passing cargo ships, at least two of which passed by without responding. For more than two hours the people kept trying to get water out of the boat. According to survivors, as the boat continued taking on more water, luggage was thrown overboard and some people jumped into the sea to lighten the load.
From here it is unclear exactly how the situation and rescue unfolded. We have to stress that the following should not be considered an authoritative account of Thursday’s events, but has been pieced together from communications on VHF channel 16 overheard during the day, survivor testimony, press releases and AIS data.
At around 10:00 CEST a passing cargo ship, Elena, spots the sinking vessel and raises the alarm on the VHF radio emergency channel saying that there were three people in the water. We estimated that the location of the boat in distress was around 51°14’45” N 02°03’12”E at this time. The French Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (CROSS Gris-Nez) then engages two nearby fishing boats, Nicolas Jeremy and Notre Dame de Boulogne, and a rescue helicopter from the Belgian air force to assist rescuing the people in the boat. The cargo ship, Elena, also launches a small rescue boat.
The two fishing vessels arrived and began taking people out of the water. However, there was at least one person in the water who refused to be rescued. The rescue helicopter reported seeing 10 people still on the sinking boat and the one person who refused to be rescued unconscious in the water. The helicopter lifted the remaining people out of the boat, which survivors told us was breaking apart, and placed them onto the other ships. Meanwhile Elena’s rescue ship took onboard one unconscious person (who may have been the same one that was refusing to be rescued by one of the fishing vessels).
From the conversations overheard on the radio, it sounded as if multiple people were unconscious in the water at different times. However, what is not clear is if all of these people were taken on board the rescue boats or if some may have been left at sea in the course of rescuing others in the water who were still alive.
Around 10:45 CEST, the French Navy ship P676 Flamant arrived to help with the rescue. All survivors who had been rescued by the fishing vessels and Elena’s rescue boat were transferred to the Flamant, assisted by the helicopter. By 10:50 CEST the Belgian rescue helicopter reported that everyone had been placed on the Flamant and confirmed that there was no one left in the sea. At 11:17 CROSS Gris-Nez requested that the helicopter make another search of the area for anyone who may have been missed. The helicopter responded that they had just completed a search of radius 1.8 nautical miles, but suggested another search ‘3 nautical miles south west from the initial points’ to account for drift.
Despite the reports of multiple people unconscious in the water throughout the course of the rescue operation, from the radio conversations it sounded as if there was only one unconscious person on the Flamant. Following a medical consultation teleconference, this person, whom the associations in Calais and Grande-Synthe have only identified as M. for now, was airlifted to the hospital in Calais, where he later died. The other people rescued stated that they had been trying to alert the authorities on board Flamant that others might still be at sea. It remains unclear if any further action was taken by the authorities based on this information.
While we cannot say exactly what happened in the course of the rescue, the survivors we spoke with are adamant that there is at least one person still missing from the shipwreck. As they told us some people had thrown themselves into the water early on to potentially delay the boat’s sinking, it is possible not all of them were found in the course of the larger rescue.
The survivors are still left with questions about what happened that day: chiefly, where is their missing friend? And if there was someone on the boat who was not rescued or recovered, what more is being done by authorities to search for them?
After the shipwreck
At 15:00 CEST, the Flamant arrived at the port of Dunkerque where the survivors of the shipwreck and others rescued that day from a seperate vessel in distress were disembarked and met by police, firefighters, emergency doctors and members of the association Utopia 56. Two separate groups of people independently informed Utopia volunteers that, in addition to the man who was evacuated, another man from Eritrea was missing and may have been left behind at sea. The 35 people rescued from the boat which sank were then taken into custody by the Police aux frontières where they were interviewed about the events and who had organised the journey. Survivors reported again alerting the police about the missing person at this time.
Several people also told us that they were held by police for 24 hours without receiving any medical attention, despite having injuries such as chemical burns sustained from the salty sea water mixed with petrol. There was also no psychological support offered.
Still without news of the missing man, on Friday (13/08/21) people from the Eritrean community in Grande-Synthe provided his name and photograph, which was handed to police. The Bridgade de Recherche (special investigations unit) of the Police Nationale in Dunkerque launched an investigation and sent out a missing person report to all police stations and hospitals, but could not locate him. The police also said a two hour long search at sea was launched on the Friday morning, however, the CROSS Gris-Nez would not confirm this. The CROSS has since not given any further information, including whether they believe that someone may still be at sea from the shipwreck, nor if they have launched subsequent searches. There have been no official announcements from the authorities about this missing person.
Since Friday the ‘Group décès‘, a collective responding to deaths at the border in northern France, has been working with the Eritrean communities in Grande-Synthe and Calais to identify the deceased and missing person, and provide support to their friends and relatives. This includes following up with the authorities and discussing how to arrange for the body of the deceased to be repatriated to Eritrea.
A commemoration was organised Sunday afternoon at Le parvis des droits de l’Homme in Dunkerque, which was attended by members of the Eritrean communities in Grande-Synthe and Calais, as well as volunteers from the associations and those wishing to express solidarity.
No more border deaths
We have too often had to repeat that when people die or go missing at the border, these are not tragic or unforeseen occurrences, but are rather the logical and intended consequences of increased border securitisation. Likewise the events of the last week are not simply accidents or the result of bad decisions by travellers or the incompetence of the authorities. They are directly caused by the violence and racism of Europe and the UK’s border systems, and recent decisions mean more situations like Thursday’s are extremely likely.
Just three weeks ago the UK pledged an additional €62.7 million to fund the doubling of French police patrols along the coast between Boulogne and Dunkerque. This will not stop people attempting to cross the Channel, but just force them to do so further from the Short Straits of Dover. The result will be people spending longer time at sea and having to cross longer distances where they will be out of telephone network coverage and not able to call for help; like what happened on Thursday. Even though the Channel is one of the most heavily surveilled and trafficked stretches of sea in the world, people we speak with often describe being left in distress for many hours without assistance.
Several have also told that they would rather die at sea than continue surviving in Calais or struggling against the borders they encounter throughout Europe. Their camps across Calais are evicted and their property confiscated or destroyed every 48 hours. Food and water distribution is banned throughout most of the city. Violence by police against travellers on the beaches is routine, and is being made increasingly possible by the drones and patrol boats paid for by the British.
So long as the British and French authorities continue colluding to maintain this border, horrific events such as Thursday’s will inevitably reoccur. The introduction of more so called ‘safe and legal routes’ will only serve to further differentiate between desirable and undesirable migrants, leaving most in the same situation they are in today. As long as some people’s movements are criminalised, they will be forced into making dangerous journeys across the sea. Justice will only be achieved when there is free movement for all.
(first published by Calais Migrant Solidarity)