‘We will demand justice’: the vigil for those who died in the Channel tragedy

Bereaved relatives of those who died in the Channel a year ago have called for justice for their loved ones at a vigil to commemorate the victims.

On 24 November 2021, 31 people attempting to reach the UK from France died in the worst maritime disaster in the Channel for 30 years. The bodies of four of the victims have still not been recovered.

On Thursday evening grieving relatives filled the western corner of Parliament Square, London, holding photos and candles in the driving rain to remember their loved ones. After a minute’s silence speeches were read out in solemn tones.

Related: Channel dinghy tragedy: bereaved families criticise investigation

One of those attending, Akil, was at the vigil to remember his uncle, Hassan. “Whenever I think about him, I see his face. This year, it has been very difficult. We spoke to him two days before – when I heard what happened to him, I couldn’t believe it. It is still difficult to believe it, almost it is impossible.”

Another of those attending said: “I arrived two weeks before and my friend Twana, he messaged me to say he is coming by boat. I said ‘I am so happy you come’. Then I heard what happened. This has been so difficult, that I am here but my friend is not.”

Others called on the British and French authorities to help them find the bodies of their loved ones. “We – all the families – are devastated, heartbroken,” said Ri, whose uncle died in the tragedy last year. “Their bodies are still lost at sea – we need to find them. The government says every refugee is welcome but no one has helped them. I really hope it doesn’t happen again.”

Call records released to lawyers by the French authorities as part of an investigation into the tragedy found that the first distress call to the French coastguard was logged shortly before 02.15. The boat overturned at about 03.15. Shortly afterwards, at 03.30, a passenger reported that some of the group were in the water.

For twelve hours, the French and British coastguards failed to send a rescue vessel or aircraft. By the time the emergency services arrived at the scene, at 14.00 the following day, all but two of the passengers had drowned or died of exposure.

Over the course of the night the UK coastguard, which is responsible for logging emergency calls and coordinating search and rescue missions in the Channel, continued to deny that the dinghy was in British waters, repeatedly telling the passengers to call the French coastguard. The records show that the boat entered British waters at 02.30.

The British authorities are waiting for the outcome of an ongoing marine accident investigation before any further inquiry takes place. None of the victims’ families have been contacted by the authorities to date.

Artin, who lost his brother, said: “I did not hear anything from the British and French authorities . I even went to the police station two or three times. I want to ask them to investigate the matter more thoroughly and find out who was negligent.”

Campaigners at the vigil called for more safe routes for those crossing the Channel and for the authorities to provide answers for the victims’ families.

Related: Inquiry into worst Channel disaster for 30 years fails to contact victims’ families

Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, which organised the vigil, said: “I have been speaking to the families of the victims for a year now. They are still waiting for answers on why their loved ones’ lives were not saved by the UK or French authorities.

“They haven’t had the courtesy of a meeting or basic information of what happened. That level of callousness and apathy from the authorities is scandalous. But we have promised them that we will never let their loved ones’ lives be forgotten. For the victims and their families, we will demand justice. They have suffered enough already – they need answers now.”

Wilf Sullivan, the race equality officer at the TUC, said: “A year ago, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers died in the English Channel despite pleas for help to the UK and French authorities. Despite this tragedy the government has doubled down on closing legal routes into our country for those fleeing war and oppression.

“The TUC are calling on the government to stop playing politics with people’s rights and provide safe routes for those seeking asylum and safety in the UK.”

Some names have been changed in this piece.