RNLI and sailors who rescue drowning migrants exempt from smuggling sentences

The RNLI and other rescuers are to be exempt from prosecution if they bring Channel migrants into the UK under proposed new legislation.

Tom Pursglove, the Immigration Minister, said the Government will amend its Nationalities and Immigration Bill so that it no longer criminalises the RNLI for rescuing migrants from drowning and bringing them to shore.

The Bill increases the sentences for smuggling into the UK from 14 years to life imprisonment. However, it had also left the RNLI open to potential prosecution, because it removed a safeguard in the current law that limits criminal sanctions only to those who bring people illegally into the UK “for gain”.

Mr Pursglove said organisations like the RNLI which work with the Government to conduct rescue operations at sea would be exempt under the new amendment.

"It puts this matter beyond doubt," he told MPs. "There would not be prosecutions in the event that rescue operations were carried out by those individuals.

"One of the key things in all of this is that there is a public interest that is always at play when it comes to prosecutions.

“Prosecutors have to explain as to whether it is in the public interest. Where organisations are working with the Government, it’s right that they are protected from prosecution. That’s what we’re doing.”

He said it would also apply to a fishing boat that came across “individuals in peril in the sea” and picked them up as part of their duty to preserve life. “There would be no risk of penalty to those individuals, because it would not be in the public interest,” he added.

RNLI has helped rescue record numbers of migrants

The problem with the Bill had been highlighted by Neil Coyle MP, who said that in its original form it placed sailors in a “Kafkaesque Catch-22: assist those in distress and risk criminal liability or do not assist, breach duties of international law and witness the deaths of other people”.

The RNLI has played a key role in helping to rescue record numbers of migrants who have attempted the Channel crossing. More than 25,000 have so far reached the UK this year, triple the 8,417 the total last year.

Earlier this week, an RNLI lifeboat faced an attempted blockade by a group of protesters angry about the rescue of migrants from the Channel.

The Royal Yacht Association has advised sailors to “stand off and report” migrants because of the risks of attempting to rescue them, not only through the draft laws but also due to the risks of violence or sinking.

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