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RNLI hits out at ‘migrant taxi service’ accusations

·4-min read

Watch: RNLI release migrant rescue footage for the first time

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) has hit out at accusations it is operating a “migrant taxi service” by rescuing people at risk of dying in the water as they cross the Channel in small boats, which the charity says is its moral and legal duty.

Responding to accusations from Nigel Farage that it is facilitating illegal immigration, the volunteer lifeboat charity said it was “very proud” of its humanitarian work and it would continue to respond to coastguard callouts to rescue at-risk Channel migrants in line with its legal duty under international maritime law.

 Related: How an RNLI training pool gave me an insight into crossing Channel as a migrant 

“Imagine being out of sight of land, running out of fuel, coming across incredibly busy shipping lanes when you’re frightened and you don’t know which direction you’re going in. That is by anyone’s standards distress. Our role in this is incredible important: simply to respond to a need to save lives,” said Mark Dowie, the chief executive of the RNLI.

Dowie’s comments came as the government prepared to enact its controversial borders and nationality bill, which aims to reduce the numbers of crossings by criminalising migrants who attempt illegal routes into the UK rather than entering via settlement schemes.

While the charity does not take a stance on political matters, Dowie said: “These islands have the reputation for doing the right thing and being decent societies, and we should be very proud of the work we’re doing to bring these people home safe.”

The RNLI’s work rescuing migrants began five years ago, but has greatly increased over the past two years across nine sites stretching between Margate in Kent and Eastbourne in east Sussex. In recent months, volunteers have observed an increase in larger boats, sometimes of up to 50 people, which are even more precarious than smaller vessels.

This reflects the rapid growth in the number of migrants attempting the dangerous crossing this year. Last week, the number of people who had crossed to the UK so far this year reached 8,452, which exceeded the figure for the whole of 2020, when 8,417 people made the trip. A further 600 were intercepted as they made the journey over the weekend.

The RNLI is looking to promote empathy and understanding among the British public with respect to migrants crossing the Channel following criticism on social media of its humanitarian work after the it was included in a Daily Mail article that claimed to reveal “migration madness”.

Watch: Drone footage show dozens of migrant dinghies stacked up in Dover compound

Dowie said he had spoken to crew members who shared “harrowing” details of “an appalling melting pot of possible risks” to understand the plight facing migrants and wanted to share these more widely. “I understand it’s a polarising and complex situation,” he said. “But unless you’ve experienced being in an open boat in the waves, it’s quite hard to get a feel for what it must be like.”

Anonymised testimonies from crew members released by the RNLI shed light on the dangerous situations for migrants. These include people lost in the ocean for 30 hours in -2C (28.4F) temperatures in January, families suffering from severe heatstroke and sea sickness on sweltering summer days, people travelling on unseaworthy vessels such as inflatable dinghies, sailing catamarans and canoes, or sometimes floating on the broken remnants of boats without any lifejackets, hoping to be saved.

One volunteer described an especially harrowing encounter: “They’d paddled this thing about 80% of the way across the Channel and they’d been doing this all night. They’d made it into the middle of the shipping lane, and they were just so exhausted they couldn’t go on and they had nothing left and they’d stopped. When we got there, they were so tired they hardly reacted to us.”

Other volunteers shared experiences of “vile abuse” on the beach as they returned with people, including young children, in desperate need of medical attention, such as having beer cans thrown at them and people shouting “fuck off back to France”.

RNLI crew members are mostly volunteers and wake up in the middle of the night or leave their regular jobs to rescue people in distress in the sea. Once they return with migrants, they ensure they are safe and well before handing them over to the police and border control officers.

Dowie stressed that the RNLI’s role was solely to save lives, not to act as an additional border control force.

While there had been “strong demand” for the RNLI’s service given the increase in the popularity of British seaside holidays, the charity had the resilience to cope, Dowie said, although he added that it was always trying to recruit more volunteers.

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