British Prime Minister Boris Johnson backs the “vital work” done by UK lifeboats saving lives at sea, his spokesman said, after the charity came under fire for helping the government to 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 ashore rescued migrants, including children.
This month former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage said the RNLI was being used as a “taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs".
The UK Parliament is debating legislation designed to toughen penalties on people smugglers and send migrants who have crossed the Channel back to France or other continental European ports.
The UK says asylum seekers should look for refuge in the first safe country they come to, such as France, Italy or Greece, and not try to reach Britain.
The migration issue is divisive in the UK and one Mr Farage put at the centre of his Brexit campaign.
Mr 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 criticism aimed at the RNLI, which is made up of volunteers manning lifeboats around the clock.
The RNLI is helping the UK Border Force to rescue migrants as they try to make the perilous journey from France.
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," said Mark Dowie, chief executive of the RNLI.
"Where we believe there is a risk to life at sea, we will always launch in response to a call from HM Coastguard.
“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.”
Mr Johnson’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, praised the work of the RNLI and said the government was trying to tackle “the gang leaders and those behind this pretty horrible trade", which involves people being forced to make “dangerous and unnecessary” crossings.
Mr 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 4 or 5.
“I can’t imagine what those families felt like, coming ashore to that after the night they’d had,” the volunteer said.
Smuggling gangs have been operating cut-price crossings by overcrowding small boats, the National Crime Agency says.
Those who cannot afford the fees are using kayaks and paddling pools, and some have even tried to swim the 34 kilometres across the narrowest part of the Channel, which is the world’s busiest shipping lane.
Some migrants are attracted by the UK’s National Health Service and the perception of high welfare payments.
About 62 per cent of claimants who enter the asylum system in the UK have arrived illegally, the British Home Office says.
Home Secretary Priti Patel wants to bring that number down by making the route between France and Britain “unviable.”
Ms Patel has accused “leftie-supporting lawyers” of exploiting the system to keep refugees and asylum seekers in the country.
The RNLI said it received an “incredible” increase in donations, including £200,000 ($279,000) in a single day, although some people had withdrawn their support.
“We know that this is a polarising issue and people have strong opinions on the subject,” said Jayne George, the RNLI’s fund-raising director.
“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 everyone.”