Emily Ashton and Kitty Donaldson, Bloomberg, July 29, 2021
Prime Minister Boris Johnson backs the “vital work” done by U.K. lifeboats saving lives at sea, his spokesman said, after the charity came under fire for helping the government rescue migrants in the English Channel.
The volunteer-staffed Royal National Lifeboat Institution said crews have suffered abuse by people on British beaches as they bring rescued migrants — including young children — ashore. It follows criticism this month from former U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, who said the RNLI is being used as a “taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs.”
The row comes as the U.K. Parliament debates new legislation designed to toughen penalties on people smugglers and to send migrants who have crossed the Channel back to France or other continental European ports. The U.K. argues that asylum seekers should seek refuge in the first safe country they come to such as France, Italy or Greece — and not attempt to reach Britain.
The migration issue is divisive in the U.K. and one Farage put at the center of his Brexit campaign. Johnson’s Conservative government has repeatedly said it is tightening border controls, a message undermined by the arrival of record numbers of small boats across the Channel this year.
Johnson’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, praised the work of the RNLI and said the government is trying to tackle “the gang leaders and those behind this pretty horrible trade,” which involves people being forced to make “dangerous and unnecessary” crossings.
Smuggling gangs have been operating cut-price crossings by overcrowding small boats, according to The National Crime Agency. Those who cannot afford the fees are using kayaks and paddling pools, and some have even tried to swim the 21 miles (34 kilometers) across the narrowest part of the Channel, which is the world’s busiest shipping lane.
Some migrants are attracted by the U.K.’s National Health Service, free at the point of use, as well as the perception of high welfare payments. About 62% of claimants who enter the asylum system in the U.K. have arrived illegally, according to the Home Office.