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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Lizzie Dearden

Channel migrant boat disaster: Man arrested in connection with death of 27 people


A man has been arrested in connection with a boat disaster where at least 27 migrants drowned in the English Channel.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) said Harem Ahmed Abwbaker, 32, was alleged to be a member of the smuggling gang who organised the fatal crossing in November 2021.

Investigators arrested him in the Cheltenham area of Gloucestershire at around 6.45am on Tuesday morning.

He is due to appear for a hearing over an extradition request by French authorities at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Wednesday.

If he is transferred to France, Mr Abwbaker could face charges equivalent to manslaughter and facilitating illegal immigration.

Craig Turner, deputy director of the NCA, said: “This is a significant arrest, and comes as part of extensive inquiries into the events leading to these tragic deaths in the Channel.

“The individual detained today is suspected of having played a key role in the manslaughter of those who died.

“Working closely with our French partners we are determined to do all we can to get justice for the families of those whose lives were lost, and disrupt and dismantle the cruel organised criminal networks involved in people smuggling.”

The criminal investigation continues over a year after the worst disaster of its kind, which also sparked separate inquiries in Britain and France over the actions of search and rescue services.

Suella Braverman, the home secretary, said: “My thoughts continue to be with the families of all of those who tragically lost their lives in this horrendous incident.

“I thank the NCA and other agencies across the UK and France for their tireless work to deliver justice for the victims and their families by identifying those we believe to be responsible and ensuring they feel the full force of the law.”

An interim report released by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch last week said 34 people left a beach near Dunkirk on a small inflatable boat on the evening of 23 November 2021.

“During the passage, the migrants got into difficulties and entered the sea,” its report added.

“Some of those on board the boat made phone calls to alert Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC) ashore about their situation.

“Staff at the Dover MRCC responded to the calls for help and dispatched UK surface and air assets to search the area where the distressed migrants were assessed to be. However, nothing was found.”

At 1pm on 24 November 2021, a French fishing crew reported bodies in the water around 9 miles off the coast of Calais.

Two survivors and 27 bodies were recovered from the sea and taken to France, while the remaining five passengers were unaccounted for.

MAIB said its investigation was ongoing and was expected to be published in summer 2023.

It is separate to a judicial inquiry in France, which has heard that French authorities told drowning migrants they were in British waters and to call 999.

Call logs have shown that dinghy passengers made multiple calls for help for over two hours, but when a survivor begging for help told French authorities people were in the sea, they replied: “Yes, but you are in English waters.”

The interim MAIB report said the authority did not initially take any action on the disaster because it was “assessed to fall outside its jurisdiction” in French waters, but it later “became evident that some of the events relating to this loss of life had occurred inside UK waters”.

Relatives of the drowned victims have vowed to fight for justice for their loved ones, with vigils held in Dunkirk, Folkestone and outside parliament in London on the anniversary of the disaster.

The government has been accused of “putting more lives at risk” in the English Channel by focusing on unevidenced policies claimed to deter crossings rather than providing alternative safe and legal routes.

Under British law, people must be physically present in the country to claim asylum but there is no visa for reaching the UK for that purpose.

Official figures show that 90 per cent of people making small boat crossings in the year to September claimed asylum.

The government was warned three years ago that small-boat crossings were rising because efforts to secure French ferry and lorry ports would drive migrants “to take more dangerous routes and push them into the hands of criminal groups”.

A November 2019 parliamentary report added: “In the absence of robust and accessible legal routes for seeking asylum in the UK, those with a claim are left with little choice but to make dangerous journeys by land and sea.”

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