The Home Office has been accused of a “truth-twisting smear” after selectively quoting a judge to support its claims that asylum seekers who steer dinghies to Britain are people smugglers – despite the judgment making clear that the defendant had not been “acting as part of a trafficking gang”.
Eight people have been jailed so far this year for piloting dinghies from France after the government intensified efforts to criminalise Channel crossings, with the Immigration Enforcement criminal investigations unit using drone footage to identify migrants at the helm, then referring them to be prosecuted for assisting unlawful immigration.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, and other ministers have branded them “people smugglers” and vowed to “hunt down the criminals who are risking migrants’ lives”.
In the case of one migrant, Judge Rupert Lowe found that those who piloted boats did not organise Channel crossings, may be coerced and threatened, and are ultimately “one of the trafficked”.
But the Home Office later left out that excerpt when it cited the judge’s remarks, in order to support its assertion that its approach had been “upheld by the courts”.
It only quoted Judge Lowe saying that an asylum seeker who steered a boat “still has responsibility for deliberately breaching immigration law” and would be jailed.
Bella Sankey, the director of Detention Action, said the Home Office’s labelling of migrants who pilot dinghies as “people smugglers” contradicted the judge’s findings.
“This is a truth-twisting smear against someone unable to defend themselves and it demeans the home secretary’s office,” she added.
Chai Patel, legal policy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: “It is legal to cross the Channel to seek asylum. The Home Office is trying to get around that legal right by pretending that the refugee who happens to have their hand on the tiller when a drone flies over is actually a smuggler.
“Everyone on these boats is a victim of our deadly policy of shutting down safe routes, and forcing people to risk their lives to reach safety and it’s disgraceful that they are being prosecuted in a way that suits a fake Home Office narrative painting refugees as criminals.”
The Home Office said it “completely rejected” claims that it had misrepresented the case.
Judge Lowe made his findings while sentencing Assad Abdulgany, a 30-year-old Iraqi man who was jailed for 16 months in October.
“The pilot-migrant in the type of case under consideration here is not in any realistic sense acting as part of a trafficking gang,” he said. “He is one of the trafficked.”
The judge told a hearing at Canterbury Crown Court that asylum seekers are “entirely beholden to gangs of people traffickers” for their place in boats and have no organisational role.
“The people traffickers who exploit these people’s desperation cannot pilot the RHIBs [rigid-hulled inflatable boats] themselves ... so they have to arrange for one of the migrants to pilot the boat,” he added.
“The reality for a pilot in these cases is that he is one of a boatload of migrants who are effectively indistinguishable from one another, except for that fact that he happens to have agreed to steer.”
A Home Office press release on the case labelled Abdulgany a “people smuggler” and a “reckless offender”, but Judge Lowe said it was “wrong to assume that getting other people into the UK is any part of the motivation”.
“The number of people in the boat is not a choice of the pilot-migrant; indeed, if he had any choice in the matter he would take fewer passengers or none,” he added, saying steering a boat was not “remotely equivalent” to smuggling migrants in a lorry or vehicle for payment.
Judge Lowe said that while in some cases, smugglers may offer a discount to someone who agrees to steer, they “may also issue last-minute threats, to the effect that if the pilot returns the boat to France he will be beaten or even killed”.
Abdulgany arrived in the UK on 15 September, on a dinghy carrying 12 other adults and four children, after paying a smuggler £4,000 for the journey.
He said the smuggler was part of a gang that used violence to control migrants in Calais camps, and that he threatened to kill him if he returned the boat to France.
Like the seven other migrants jailed so far this year for steering dinghies, Abdulgany had pleaded guilty to assisting unlawful immigration into the UK.
In October, the Crown Prosecution Service issued new guidance to lawyers after some questioned if such charges were in the public interest.
A document said the offence of assisting unlawful immigration could be applied to asylum seekers who steer boats because they have “facilitated” a journey.
The offence was previously used to prosecute people smugglers who bring migrants to the UK for profit, such as lorry drivers and members of organised crime networks.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our approach to this issue has been upheld by the courts, presided over by a number of judges, which have handed down convictions and passed significant sentences against individuals piloting the vessels, assisting illegal entry, and putting lives at risk.
“Abdulgany was sentenced in the same week that more lives were lost by people attempting the same crossing. His actions were plainly both criminal and reckless.”