Campaigners are fighting back against far-right group Britain First after it launched a campaign to bombard the Royal National Lifeboat Institute with complaints over rescue work for migrants crossing the English Channel.
The Britain First campaign comes a week after crew on board an RNLI lifeboat were heckled and obstructed from entering the Channel to rescue migrants making the crossing from France days after 27 people drowned in the Channel while trying to reach Britain.
An entirely voluntary charity that has been operating for 200 years, the RNLI says it will continue to provide its 24-hour rescue services to “anyone in trouble at sea” in the UK and Ireland “without judgment or preference". A rival social media campaign has been established to show support for the RNLI's work.
While increasing attention is paid to the teams’ migrant rescue missions, the lifeboat crews have also been called out to save endangered sailors and fishermen at sea during storms in recent weeks.
As Storm Arwen battered Britain with gale force winds in excess of 50 kilometres an hour last week, the RNLI plucked four sailors to safety off the coast of Wales. The week before that, the rescue team in north England battled six-metre waves in storm force conditions to rescue six fishermen on a 14-metre fishing vessel after its engine failed.
The RNLI has faced consistent harassment in recent months by far-right activists calling themselves "migrant hunters", including threatening emails, which have been reported to the police.
Britain First, which campaigns against immigration, set up an online form for supporters to “pressure” the RNLI to stop its "treacherous activities" and accused them of being “engaged in people trafficking in the English Channel".
“Britain First has launched a complaints [sic] drive aimed at the RNLI to pressure them to abandon [sic] their support for illegal immigration and people trafficking and focus instead [sic] on saving British lives along our coastal areas,” the message on their platform says.
In response, HOPENotHate, a UK antifascism campaign group, launched a counter-petition for people to send messages of solidarity to the RNLI.
“The RNLI is an emergency service. They save people's lives. All people. It could be frightened desperate refugees or it could be my husband in his boat. Leave them to do their job and pray you never need saving yourself!” was just one message from a supporter of the life-saving crew.
Another message forwarded to The National from HOPEnotHate read: “Heroes has become an overused word, but RNLI are volunteers who save lives. How can anyone think this is less than heroic.”
The group said its petition had received more than 15,000 messages of support so far, more than four times the number declared by Britain First.
“Britain First claim to love this country, but denigrate and smear any of the things that are great about it. RNLI is a fantastic organisation, made of volunteers who risk their lives to save people at sea.
“Denigrating a charity which saves lives in order to fuel anti-migrant hate is despicable. We cannot forget that the never ending ‘immigration debate’ that fills our newspapers and television screens is a debate about people’s right to live,” said Rosie Carter, director of policy at HOPEnotHate, in a written statement sent to The National.
A spokesperson for the RNLI said it was “incredibly grateful” for the “huge level of support” they have received.
He said: “The RNLI is proud of the humanitarian work of its volunteer lifeboat crews in the Channel and we are grateful for the outpouring of support we’ve recently received. The recent tragic deaths in the Channel are a sad reminder of just how dangerous it is to go to sea in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in boats not fit for the crossing, especially as winter approaches.”
Earlier this year Britain First was relisted as a political party despite its leader Paul Golding being convicted under the Terrorism Act last year. In September, the far-right organisation’s leader and deputy leader agreed to pay “substantial damages” to settle a libel claim after they falsely alleged that the Halal Food Authority and its two employees were involved in funding terrorism.