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Prosecutors target smuggled people who were forced to pilot small boats

Ibrahima Bah will spend at least the next six years and three months in custody. He will do so for manslaughter, and for smuggling dozens of people into the UK on a perilous small-boat journey across the Channel during which at least four died.

In the words of the migration minister Michael Tomlinson, it was “right that he has been brought to justice” because Bah “put dozens of lives in extreme danger by taking charge of a perilous and illegal small boat crossing”.

Bah was not part of a people-smuggling gang – not even the prosecutor claimed that. As he passed sentence, the judge accepted Bah was, in fact, one of the people being smuggled.

Bah, who is Senegalese, was targeted by prosecutors because he had been picked from among the passengers to steer the boat.

As prosecutors noted, members of the people-smuggling gangs do not ordinarily put themselves in harm’s way to steer boats; on Bah’s evidence, he was forced into it.

It is for that reason that some campaigners see Bah, now 20, not as responsible for the deaths of four people but as a victim of people smugglers, whose business model is sustained by the government’s refusal to open safe and legal routes.

He has been prosecuted under a law that the campaigners believe is designed to criminalise people whose desperation drives them into the arms of those gangs.

Passing sentence, Mr Justice Johnson KC told Bah: “Those who bear the primary responsibility … are the gangs of people smugglers who organise the trips, secure the boats and choose to place huge numbers of passengers in unsafe vessels, exposing each of them to an obvious and serious risk of death.”

But under UK law Bah was deemed culpable. It is he, not a member of the gang who the judge accepted had coerced Bah into taking the tiller, who was taken from Canterbury crown court on Friday afternoon to start a nine-and-a-half-year sentence – of which he will serve at least six years and three months in custody.

Bah is just the latest small boat pilot to be prosecuted under powers expanded in 2022.

If the Home Office’s public trumpeting of such cases is to be believed, the prosecutions are evidence of ministers’ determination to “stop the boats and prosecute those responsible”.

Take the case of Ashari Mohamed. The court heard that he too was picked from among the passengers to pilot the boat because he had previous experience. Publicising his conviction, the government claimed it was evidence of its work to “stop the boats and dismantle the people-smuggling networks behind them”.

The Home Office publicised the cases of Reda Hamoud Abdurabou and Daban Majeed; prosecuted for steering the boats on which they were passengers. Between August 2023 and January, at least eight more people appeared in magistrates courts in England charged with similar offences.

Fizza Qureshi, the chief executive of Migrants’ Rights Network, said: “People are being forced into those boats and, instead of them being dealt with as victims – someone who’s been essentially trafficked to the UK, they’re seen as a criminal.”

Julia Tinsley-Kent, the group’s spokesperson, said: “When you look at the Home Office’s comms generally around migration, it’s just really vile. And the way they talk about these ‘victories’, what they’re doing is horrendous.”

She said the targeting of the people picked to steer the boats had increased in recent months, but had not been widely noticed.

For all the noise around the government’s main policy aimed at “stopping the boats” – the Rwanda deportation plan – the targeting of small boat pilots using criminal law has proved the more effective attack on people trying to cross the Channel to request asylum.

On Friday, campaigners said they planned to demonstrate outside the Home Office in London.

After the verdict on Monday, Captain Support UK – a solidarity platform for those accused of piloting boats to Europe – said Bah’s conviction was a “violent escalation in the persecution of migrants to ‘stop the boats’”.

It was an “unjust conviction” for a “teenage survivor of the 2022 Channel shipwreck”, the group said.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said: “Instead of condemning this young man, the blame for deaths in the Channel should be placed squarely where it lies – with this government’s hateful policies that make it impossible for people to come to this country safely.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our priority is to stop the boats, which is why we have taken robust action to crack down on vile people-smuggling gangs, deter migrants from making dangerous crossings and, alongside our French counterparts, intercept vessels.

“This relentless action reduced crossings by 36% last year, which saw similar weather conditions to 2022, and more than 26,000 attempts were prevented.

“The fact we have seen three devastating fatal incidents in three months highlights the unacceptable risks that migrants and criminal gangs are running in pursuing these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossing attempts.”