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A year ago today at least four people drowned while crossing the English Channel in an overcrowded dinghy. Their deaths barely made headlines, there were no public statements from the authorities and no inquiry is underway. The incident was instead co-opted by the Conservative Party, which seized on the chance to talk about the work they are doing to “smash the business model of the people smuggling gangs”.
But the Government isn’t smashing the people smuggling gangs. They’re going after migrants themselves. In January, Ibrahima Bah, a 19-year-old man from Senegal accused of piloting the stricken dinghy will be hauled through the courts again on four counts of manslaughter, held up as an example of what happens to those who have their hand on, or anywhere near, the tiller of a boat. If convicted, he could receive a life sentence.
The Home Office has long labelled small boat pilots as “people smugglers”. Evidence used against them is often contested. In Bah’s case, it involved being photographed close to the tiller. In June he reportedly told the court that he was merely a passenger who had initially refused to pilot the vessel until being assaulted and threatened with death by the smugglers if he failed to comply.
Often, the evidence used to prosecute is gathered from arriving migrants who are interviewed immediately after they disembark, when they are disoriented, traumatised and still under arrest. Their phones are taken, they are held in a police cell and they may not have legal representation. One of the survivors from the December 2022 incident told me that within an hour of arrival, he and other members of the group had been instructed to point out the pilot in what felt like a “police lineup”. Their statements would then be used as evidence to criminalise Bah, who had, they say, been a friend, “like a brother”, to many in the boat.
For the last year, more than a dozen of the survivors have been holed up together at a dilapidated guesthouse on the Kent coast, presumably so they could be called upon for further evidence in the trial, if required. I went to meet them there one foggy afternoon in September. Among the group were five Afghans who had narrowly escaped death that night, and who knew those who had perished in the shipwreck. “It was so cold, I did not know if I was alive or dead”, Abdul-Azim told me.
A fishing trawler had come to their rescue at around 03:00, after at least 45 minutes spent clinging to the rim of the dinghy, its wooden boards collapsed inwards. By that stage, most of the group were in the water; others had been pushed back out to sea by a strong current and died in five degree water. One man slipped while climbing aboard the fishing boat and was crushed between the dinghy and the trawler. Another had been hit in the head by a broken wooden slat as the boat collapsed, knocking him unconscious. He, too, drowned in the freezing water, his body still missing, a year on.
One of the first responders to arrive at the scene, at around 03:30, was the RNLI Dungeness rescue team. Among them was Adam, a volunteer on one of his first shifts as a lookout for the boat crew. Two bodies lay face down in the water; he and other team members had to pull them up. “You never forget something like that,” he told me, standing on the shingle beach the following week. Shortly after that, a group of far-right ‘vigilantes’ (as they’re called by the RNLI) spray-painted ‘Taxi’ over the lifeboat station doors, parroting Nigel Farage’s claims the volunteer crews are a “taxi service for illegal migrants”. Crew members started taking their RNLI parking permits off their cars, after their tyres were repeatedly deflated. Most have been pilloried at the school gates or at their local pub.
Frontline search and rescue staff regularly tell me they resent their roles having become so politicised. “The Government has done nothing to stop the boats except slap a slogan on it”, one Border Force member told me on the picket line in Dover recently. “We shouldn’t be used as a political tool – we’re civil servants doing frontline work. Our jobs shouldn’t feel political, or be political, but they are.”
As the scrutiny has worsened, so too has the public response. Search and rescue workers have been consistently demonised in the right-wing press, to the extent they have had to take measures to protect themselves and their families. The teenage daughter of a coastguard was recently approached in the street by three far-right men, who allegedly shouted and swore at her, accusing her father of people smuggling. Another search and rescue contact had left his job after he’d been beaten unconscious in a pub, recognised for TV interviews he had done. Many now understandably choose not to speak out for fear of reprisal.
To make matters worse, the frontline agencies are chronically under-resourced and under-funded. “It’s a clear political choice, isn’t it?” a member of the Border Force said. “We’re on our knees, but we can’t recruit because the pay is so bad, and our vessels aren’t fit-for-purpose.” A senior member of HM Coastguard commented that: “As long as we continue to put policy before operations, people will keep dying in our waters”.
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Rather than focusing its efforts on bolstering frontline teams, the Government continues to pile its resources into criminalising migrants who ‘facilitate entry’ by driving boats. Despite the grandstanding, the number of arrests of those accused of piloting boats is tiny: only 87 people since March 2022. It might sound like tough talk, but the figures speak for themselves.
Meanwhile, at the sharp end of it all, whiling away the days and months behind bars is a teenage boy, his mental health reportedly in tatters.
“What happened to him?” the survivors asked me that autumn day on the Kent coast. After they had given their statements, the line of communication had suddenly gone dead. I explained about Bah’s trial in the summer, and how the jury had been discharged. “Ibrahima is not a criminal. None of us are criminals,” Abdul-Azim said. “We saw our friends under the boat, we saw them die out at sea. Why can the Government not see that we are not to blame for this?”