French judges step up investigation into Channel migrant deaths in 2021

Magistrates in France have filed preliminary charges against five emergency service officials for allegedly not assisting people in danger following the deaths of 27 migrants in the English Channel when their boat sank in 2021.

Judges in Paris have been investigating whether distress calls were mishandled by responders on duty on the French coast and authorities in charge of rescue missions. The accident in November 2021 was the deadliest since a surge in clandestine crossings on small boats in recent years by people trying to reach the UK coast from France.

Late last year, president Emmanuel Macron’s government launched its own internal probe to try to determine if calls for help were ignored, after Le Monde newspaper published leaked recordings revealing that French services did not send help to the migrants despite numerous calls requesting aid.

The five people now facing preliminary charges are military personnel and part of Cross, a coastal emergency services unit that is overseen by the prime minister’s office, a court official said, confirming a report by AFP news agency.

Ten other people, civilians, are also already facing preliminary charges as part of the investigation, but on various other counts, including involuntary homicide and for helping people stay illegally in France, the court official added.

The investigation, being handled by a special organised crime unit, still has a long way to run before magistrates and prosecutors decide whether to proceed to a trial. In the French system, after someone is mis en examen, the investigating magistrate will further examine the allegations against the person as a first step, and charges can still be dropped or the person can be ordered to stand trial.

The prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment. 

The accident in 2021, which sparked an outcry in France and Britain, has since been followed by several new pacts and commitments by both governments to try to stem the flow of small boats attempting the dangerous crossing.

That includes heightened patrols by French police, under a revised migration agreement with Britain from November 2022 also equipped with a bigger budget. Britain, meanwhile, is attempting to further tighten its rules on asylum claims to act as a deterrent.

Humanitarians groups have said this has done little to stop the crossings, however, which have shifted to different parts of the French coast or to Belgium.

The number of people journeying across the Channel reached 46,000 in 2022, up 60 per cent from a year earlier, according to British official figures.

In the leaked emergency recordings from 2021 obtained by Le Monde, which the Financial Times could not independently verify, French authorities told the migrants that they should contact UK emergency services as they were in British waters.

Officials could also be heard making insensitive comments in asides about the migrants, fuelling further criticism and shock over how the emergency calls were handled.

This post was originally published on Financial Times

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