When Migrants Need Help, RNLI's Rescuers Return Home to Public Anger

Rescued migrants aboard an RNLI lifeboat (RNLI)

Published Jul 29, 2021 11:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

The volunteer-operated Royal National Lifeboat Institution has been saving lives at sea since 1824, and its crews routinely overcome rough weather and dangerous circumstances to bring mariners to safety. But RNLI stations located on the Channel are encountering a new challenge as they carry out their role as the UK's first responders at sea: they are sometimes met by angry mobs hurling insults and beer cans when they return. The RNLI responds to all in need, and when its crews rescue maritime migrants rather than fishermen, the response of local residents can be emotionally charged.

On one rescue, a crewmember recounted rescuing two families in a small inflatable. They were showing signs of exposure, and the crew wanted to bring them in quickly to get them care. "When we got there, there were some members of the public who saw us coming in with this – two families, little children, four or five years old in this boat, and a small group of them were standing there on the beach shouting, '____ off back to France' at us as we tried to bring them in," the crewmember said. "It’s one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen."

Another crewmember recounted the reception given to a group of rescuees on a crowded summer beach when the RNLI crew towed their small boat to shore. 

"I would have said there were two families on board. Looking at them you could almost say they were doctors, dentists. the children and the woman was just praying in the little boat, please rescue us, please rescue us," he said. "And I felt so sorry for them because where they were taken ashore it was one of the busiest days of the year. The beach was absolutely packed. The abuse that was thrown at the people walking up the beach, the women and the children and there was some drunken yob throwing a beer can at them. You just can’t believe what you are seeing from human beings."

Though the RNLI has long enjoyed public support for its charitable work, the tenor of interactions has occasionally become tense in between missions as well. "We’ve had some vile abuse thrown at us," said another crewmember. "I’ve personally had personal phone calls at the lifeboat station people telling me what they think of me by bringing migrants in."

The crewmembers emphasized that their work results in lives saved, and that without it, fatalities may be a matter of time. The migrants they rescue are in distress, often right in the center of the world's busiest shipping channel. The small vessels typically lack propulsion or steerage to counter the currents, and the passengers often set out without proper clothing or equipment. Frequently there are young children and infants on board. 

For the RNLI, this means that every emergency call received from HM Coastguard deserves the same level of response, according to RNLI Chief Executive Mark Dowie - whether it is a fisherman or a merchant mariner or a migrant. 

"When our lifeboats launch, we operate under international maritime law, which states we are permitted and indeed obligated to enter all waters regardless of territories for search and rescue purposes," he said. "And when it comes to rescuing those people attempting to cross the Channel, we do not question why they got into trouble, who they are or where they come from. All we need to know is that they need our help."