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RNLI-Border Force row reveals ‘chaos’ in maritime rescue before Channel tragedy

<span>An RNLI volunteer is said to have told the coastguard: ‘We are volunteers. All their crew is paid to be out … I know by the sound of your voice this isn’t an emergency.’ </span><span>Photograph: Loop/Alamy</span>
An RNLI volunteer is said to have told the coastguard: ‘We are volunteers. All their crew is paid to be out … I know by the sound of your voice this isn’t an emergency.’ Photograph: Loop/Alamy

A volunteer for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) allegedly accused Border Force crews of “not doing their job”, during a spat in which the charity refused a coastguard request to rescue a migrant boat. The incident came days before a mass drowning that was the deadliest Channel disaster for more than 30 years.

The coastguard were told that the RNLI crew would only launch if “you’ve got people in the water” after it was asked to plug a gap in Border Force coverage, according to internal documents seen by the Guardian and Liberty Investigates, which reveal tensions between agencies involved in rescuing small boats in the Dover Strait.

Newly obtained coastguard logs from the incident in the early hours of 20 November 2021 show the boat – carrying 25 people – remained at sea for about three hours after the RNLI rejected two requests to go to the rescue in place of Border Force, whose only on-duty vessel was apparently busy going to the aid of other boats.

The revelation has raised further questions over the government’s reliance on the charity to rescue small boats. A former RNLI crewman previously warned the volunteers were being put under “unsustainable” pressure.

HM Coastguard is the UK government-funded agency with primary responsibility for maritime search and rescue (SAR) but it does not have any rescue vessels of its own. Its staff most commonly task Border Force with recovering small boats and, less frequently, the RNLI.

A document suggests coastguard staff and a Ramsgate lifeboat station volunteer had a heated exchange in which the latter said the incident should be handled by Border Force – which eventually recovered the boat and all its passengers three hours later once another crew’s shift had started.

The volunteer is claimed to have told the coastguard: “It’s [Border Force] not doing their job. We are volunteers.

“All their crew is paid to be out, its [sic] getting ridiculous … If there’s an emergency and you’ve got people in the water we will go afloat but at the moment I know by the sound of your voice that this isn’t an emergency.”

The coastguard’s policy is to presume all migrant vessels in UK waters are in “imminent danger” and require “immediate assistance”.

An RNLI spokesperson said the refusal was “based on an assessment of factors that included a determination of rescue need and levels of distress”.

But an independent maritime SAR expert, who requested anonymity, said the refusal went “completely against the basic principles of maritime [rescue] and human morals”.

Critics said the revelations illustrated why a forthcoming independent inquiry into the death of at least 27 people in the same stretch of water just days later must be able to “compel all parties to provide evidence”. The inquiry lacks legal powers at present.

Steve Smith, chief executive of the refugee charity Care4Calais, said the latest findings revealed “tension and chaos at the heart of the UK’s rescue capacity at the time” and that the government had questions to answer over whether its lack of investment in SAR and heavy reliance on RNLI volunteers could “endanger lives”.

A report by the government agency for investigating maritime disasters, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, into the November 2021 mass drowning found the coastguard sent just one vessel – Border Force’s cutter HMC Valiant – to the stricken dinghy, which got into difficulties in the middle of the night. Victims could have succumbed to cold-water shock within minutes, it said.

The Border Force cutter rescued 98 people in three other boats that night, but not those on the dinghy carrying the 27 who died.

Unlike the RNLI’s vessels, Border Force boats were not designed for search and rescue activity, the report noted, although they were the UK’s “principal assets” for responding to vulnerable migrant boats. There is no suggestion the RNLI refused a callout on the night of the tragedy.

An RNLI spokesperson said November 2021 was “exceptionally busy” and the demand on its volunteer crews was “unprecedented”.

Related: Relatives of 27 who drowned in Channel boat sinking demand answers

“Despite that – both before and after the incident in question – our volunteers continued to respond to their pagers by getting out of bed in the middle of the night, leaving their employment and leaving their families to go to help others because they believe in our core purpose of saving lives at sea,” they said, adding that the RNLI was “very proud” of its relationship with SAR partners in the Channel.

The spokesperson said the RNLI was not tasked with responding to the fatal incident on 24 November.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which oversees the coastguard, said it would be “inappropriate to comment” amid ongoing investigations.

The Department for Transport, which funds the coastguard, declined to comment on resources available for search and rescue in the Channel.