(Bloomberg) -- 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.
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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.
But senior ministers are dismayed at the abuse hurled at the RNLI, which is made up of volunteers manning lifeboats around the clock. The RNLI is helping U.K. Border Force rescue migrants as they attempt to make the perilous journey from France to Britain. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said he made a donation to the charity, and urged others to do so.
“We do not judge those we rescue –- where we believe there is a risk to life at sea, we will always launch in response to a call from HM Coastguard,” Mark Dowie, RNLI chief executive, said in a statement. “We want to be absolutely clear that we are incredibly proud of the work our volunteer lifeboat crews do to rescue vulnerable people in distress.”
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.
Asked directly whether Johnson agrees with Farage’s description of the RNLI as a “taxi service” for migrants, Davie said the charity does “vital work to protect people’s lives at sea.”
Lifeboat crew members have spoken anonymously on the RNLI website of their experiences in rescuing migrants; one described how they were met by an “angry mob” on the beach when they brought in two families, including children aged four or five years old. “I can’t imagine what those families felt like, coming ashore to that after the night they’d had,” the person said.
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.
Home Secretary Priti Patel wants to bring that number down by making the route between France and Britain “unviable.” She has accused “leftie-supporting lawyers” of exploiting the system to keep refugees and asylum seekers in the country.
The RNLI said it has received an “incredible” increase in donations, including 200,000 pounds ($279,000) in a single day, though it noted some people had withdrawn their support.
“We know that this is a polarizing issue and people have strong opinions on the subject,” Jayne George, the RNLI’s fund-raising, marketing and media director, said in a statement. “This was never a fund-raising 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 every one.”
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