UK government proposals aimed at prosecuting migrant traffickers leaves confusion on whether rescues at sea off the UK coast could lead to prosecution

In a move aimed at reducing illegal migration across the Channel, the UK government is proposing legislation to make it easier to prosecute traffickers, but it could have a knock-on impact for organisations or sailors who find themselves involved in rescues at sea.

The Nationality and Borders Bill proposes big changes to the asylum system but it also makes an offence to facilitate asylum-seekers’ arrival in the UK, and there is no specific exemption for humanitarian rescues at sea.

Concerns have been raised that yacht skippers or other seafarers who assist distressed vessels in the Channel be prosecuted if the rescued turn out to be entering the UK illegally.

In response to a question from barrister George Peretz QC, the Home Office replied (on Twitter, so not an official statement) ‘this doesn’t apply to organisations such as HM Coastguard and RNLI helping those in distress at sea.’

Peretz responded: ‘What about individuals or shipping companies rescuing people in distress at sea?

What, exactly, are the boundaries of the conduct to which this offence is said not to apply? Unexplained assertions – in a tweet or even by minister in Parliament – don’t cut it. The answers should be in the text of the legislation. But they aren’t.’

RNLI crew heading out into the English Channel – the volunteer service is the first to respond in many rescues at sea

The Bill is being opposed by the Law Society and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. 

International law does recognise an obligation to assist those in distress at sea.

‘‘This duty is based on a long-standing and strongly felt moral obligation among seafarers. It is stated, for example, in the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Article 98 the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Regulation V-33. All states recognise this duty,’ notes Erik Røsaeg, professor at the Scandinavian Institute of Maritime Law on a report for Oxford University Faculty of Law. 

‘It is sometimes suggested that migrant vessels… are so unseaworthy, overloaded and in such bad shape that they are unlikely to make it to the destination. It is thus suggested that the rules of maritime rescue do not apply. I can see no legal basis for this argument.’

The Royal Lifeboat National Institution has disagreed strongly with the proposed bill and the following political fall-out after former politician Nigel Farage came out against the charity referring to them as a “taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs”.

The RNLI issued a statement saying: “We’re proud of the lifesaving work our volunteers do in the Channel – we make no apology for it. Those we rescue are vulnerable people in danger & distress.” 

The organisation also released a video of their work in an effort to explain its importance in performing rescues at sea.

In response, the RNLI reported a 2000% increase in donations with over £200,000 given in a single day. 

Jayne George, the RNLI’s fundraising director, commented on the increase saying: “We are overwhelmed with the huge level of support we have received from our amazing supporters in the last couple of days.”

Ms George wanted to distance the charity from accusations that they were using the crisis as a fundraising campaign: “We simply wanted to tell the story of our crews and make it clear that our charity exists to save lives at sea. Our mission is to save everyone.”

Should you assist?

The advice for private yacht crews responding to a vessel in distress is less clear however; so what should you do if they come across migrants that appear to be in danger, need help or have called for it? 

Stuart Carruthers, cruising manager of the Royal Yachting Association (RYA), says: “Report it by radio, note it in the log but be very, very wary about [giving] assistance. People believe you must render assistance at sea but you don’t have to if it puts your boat in danger. It sounds very harsh, but you could have a massive bureaucratic problem and be tied up in bringing illegal immigrants into the country. Our advice is stand off and report.”

Our sister title, Yachting Monthly, recently reported on cruisers’ experiences of encountering migrant vessels. It is not an uncommon occurrence – in this year’s ARC transatlantic cruising rally at least one crew came across an abandoned boat, suspected to have been used migrants fleeing through Mauritania before swimming ashore at the Canaries.

Sailors should also be aware of unusual activity which may be related to people smuggling. In April this year, the National Crime Agency issued an alert, warning that organised crime groups may target the marine industry to obtain small boats for people smuggling.

Organised crime groups are known to target legitimate sellers of vessels and equipment such as outboard motors and life jackets, both in person and online. There are also incidents recorded of boats and equipment being stolen.

The National Crime Agency has conducted a number of operations targeting those who supply boats to people smugglers, but it is asking those in the industry to report concerns or suspicious activity relating to the purchase of boat equipment anonymously via Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

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