Europe 1 with AFP / Photo credits: Ben Stansall / AFP 18:13 p.m., May 25, 2023

Five soldiers were indicted Thursday afternoon in Paris for failure to assist a person in danger in the investigation into the death of 27 migrants after the sinking of their boat in the English Channel at the end of 2021. They are three women and two men on duty at the time of the events at the Gris-Nez Regional Operational Centre for Surveillance and Rescue.

After the smugglers, the rescue: the investigation into the sinking of a boat that led to the death of 27 migrants in the Channel in November 2021, accelerates with the indictment Thursday of five soldiers, suspected of having mistaken in their rescue mission that night. Nine people, including at least five soldiers from the Regional Operational Center for Surveillance and Rescue Gris Nez (Cross, Pas-de-Calais), had been placed in custody in recent days and questioned by the Research Section of the maritime gendarmerie of Cherbourg, according to a judicial source and a source close to the case.

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The five soldiers presented to investigating magistrates

According to the source close to the case, the five soldiers, three women and two men, were presented Thursday afternoon to the investigating magistrates of the National Jurisdiction for the Fight against Organized Crime (Junalco) of the Paris Judicial Court. According to a judicial source, these five people were indicted for failure to assist a person in danger and released at the end of their interrogation.

The Code of Military Justice severely restricts the possibilities for military personnel to be placed under judicial supervision. The five defendants are three women and two men, all assigned to the Cross at the time of the facts, according to the source close to the file. In this case, the French authorities are suspected of having been called for help on fifteen occasions and of not having come to the aid of the migrants on the night of the shipwreck.

Asked by AFP, the director of the Cross Gris-Nez, in charge of rescue in the Channel, did not wish to react. "All operators currently at the Cross Gris-Nez or embarked have all the confidence of the prefect to conduct rescue operations at sea," the Maritime Prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea told AFP. "The case is ongoing and the investigation is not our responsibility," she added, declining to comment further.

"Help please"

The boat sank in the early morning of November 24, 2021, carrying 27 passengers, mostly Iraqi Kurds, aged between 7 and 46. No one came to their aid. Neither on the French nor on the British side, each spending the night passing the buck, according to documents of the investigation consulted by AFP and revealed by Le Monde in November. In a telephone conversation with the Cross, seen by AFP, a migrant said: "Help please (...) I'm in the water." "Yes, but you are in English waters, sir," his interlocutor replies. "No, not English waters, French waters, please can you come quickly," he pleads again, before the conversation is cut off. "Oh bah, you don't hear, you won't be saved. ' I have my feet in the water', well I didn't ask you to leave," said the operator.

These elements, which agree with the statements of the two survivors, had shaken the Cross Gris-Nez when they were revealed, but also aroused the "consternation" of migrant aid associations. Transcripts of conversations show, however, that the Cross contacted the British coastguard on several occasions.

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Ten alleged smugglers already indicted

During previous hearings as witnesses in this investigation at the end of 2021, Cross agents had invoked the lack of resources that forces "to prioritize". That evening, the Cross handled "hundreds or even thousands of calls," one of them reported. "If at any time there has been a breach, a mistake, sanctions will be taken," Secretary of State Hervé Berville also said in November, acknowledging a "fright" on reading press information.

Ten alleged smugglers, mostly Afghans, have already been indicted in the judicial investigation. An investigation is also underway across the Channel. The British authorities announced at the end of November that they had arrested a man, "suspected of being a member of the organised criminal group that conspired to transport the migrants to the UK aboard a small boat".

This tragedy had increased the tension between Paris and London. But without discouraging candidates for England. Some 46,000 asylum seekers crossed the Channel in 2022, mostly Afghans, Iranians and Albanians. Some 8,000 were rescued in French waters.