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Britain and France Refused to Rescue the 27 Migrants Who Drowned in the English Channel

On November 24, 27 migrants drowned in the English Channel while trying to reach Britain from France in an inflatable boat. It turns out that they radioed for help and were left to die. Xenophobic French and British imperialism are their murderers.

Karl Nara

December 11, 2021
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This photo shows migrants in orange vests during a crisis moment at sea.

On November 24, 27 migrants died off the coast of Calais, France, when their boat sank in the English Channel as they tried to reach England. They had left from Dunkirk in an inflatable boat with about 50 people on board.

Since 1999, 340 people have died on this French-British border, according to the migrant aid association Utopia56. Such tragedies have only increased as the borders have become increasingly militarized, leaving migrants no choice but risky crossings. In Calais, 65 km of fences have been put up and areas have been flooded to prevent passage through the Eurotunnel or the commercial port, forcing migrants to rely on smugglers’ networks and making the passage to England more dangerous and deadly than ever.

This is not the first or last such tragedy. It reveals the truth of migration policies of France, Britain, and Europe more broadly: an increasingly violent militarization of the borders, and growing repression of migrants. In France, political leaders from President Emmanuel Macron to far-Right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, in response to this tragedy, have called for greater repressive action against smugglers — but it will really be migrants who suffer.

And now we have learned, as the first information comes out from an ongoing investigation of the drownings, that the French and British governments are implicated even more deeply in the tragedy. 

A Call for “Help” Went Unanswered

A few days after the drownings, two survivors gave an interview to the Kurdish media outlet Rudaw. They both stated that as the boat began to sink, several people called French and British rescue services — to no effect. Other testimony from the families of victims corroborates this fact. As Le Monde reports, “A judicial source [says that] the statements made by these two survivors have been confirmed early in the investigation … the calls they mention appear in the itemized records obtained from the police.”

It turns out that the boat sank right at the water border between France and England. When migrants called the French rescue services, they were told to call the English. The English referred them back to the French, in a deadly game of ping-pong. As a Utopia56 volunteer told Le Monde, “I asked someone from CROSS [Centres régionaux opérationnels de surveillance et de Sauvetage; Regional Operational Centers for Monitoring and Rescue] to clarify this. She told me that the British rescue services let the boat drift into French waters so it would be the French authorities who would have to rescue the people.”

France and Britain are passing the buck as to who is responsible. It was a fishing boat that happened to be passing that noticed the wreck and called for rescue services to move in. Both countries, by ignoring the numerous calls for help from both sides, are once again guilty of knowingly letting people drown.

This tragedy comes at a tense diplomatic moment between France and Britain, particularly on the migration issue, with each country blaming the other. Meanwhile, Europe’s main response has been to dispatch a plane from the European agency Frontex that flies day and night over an area from the French coast to the Netherlands.

In short, the French and British governments are doubly responsible for the deaths of these people: first, because of their xenophobic and repressive policies of militarization of the borders, which force migrants to incur tremendous risks to cross; and second, because their “rescue” services simply let migrants die at sea.

Enough with the Hypocritical Speeches: Open the Borders!

Given the scale and media coverage of the disaster, the government and political class could not ignore the drownings on November 24. Everyone sent out tweets expressing a deep “emotional” response. But without exception, they’re all backing more repression of migrants and greater militarization of the borders — the very policies that led to the tragedy. It’s far too late for Macron’s humanitarian affirmation that “France will not let the English Channel become a cemetery.”

Xenophobia is rife on the French Left, too. Fabien Roussel of the Communist Party said that “migrants without the right to asylum should go home.” Arnaud Montebourg of the Socialist Party proposed “blocking the transfer of private money … to countries that refuse to repatriate their nationals who have been expelled from French territory.”

The tragedy on November 24, and the crass responsibility of the French and British states, makes it urgent that we demand these killer borders be opened. There must be papers for all undocumented migrants, immediately; the closing of the administrative detention centers where migrants are imprisoned; and the right of family reunification. All deportations must end immediately, and all migrants must be granted residency permits, jobs, and access to schools and universities. These measures are indispensable if we are going to put an end to “Fortress Europe.”

Borders can be torn down only through struggle. People migrate from their homes only when they are forced to do so because they see no future without poverty and war. And who bears responsibility, first and foremost, for the destabilization of the poorer countries? It is the imperialist countries, including France and Britain.

First published in French on December 9 in Révolution Permanente.

Translation by Scott Cooper

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