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Teenage dinghy pilot convicted of manslaughter over British Channel migrant deaths

Ibrahima Bah helmed the sinking dinghy that led to the deaths of four people in December 2022, but campaigners say French and British authorities are responsible
A view of migrants on the beach at sunrise after a failed attempt to cross the Channel to the UK on a small boat, in Sangatte, near Calais, France, 10 August 2023 (Reuters)
A view of migrants on the beach at sunrise after a failed attempt to cross the channel to the UK on a small boat, in Sangatte, near Calais, France, on 10 August 2023 (Reuters)

The Canterbury Crown Court on Monday convicted a teenage migrant of manslaughter after piloting a sinking dinghy across the British Channel, leading to the deaths of four passengers.

This is the first time in the UK legal system that a migrant who piloted a boat has been found guilty of manslaughter. A sentence is expected to be announced on Friday.

Campaigners have blamed the wreck on the French and British coastguard’s negligence.

Senegalese 19-year-old Ibrahima Bah was arrested over a year ago after he and dozens of other passengers, including Afghan and Iranian nationals aboard the deflating dinghy, were pulled aboard the UK fishing boat, Arcturus.

Bah, who was photographed near the tiller of the stricken dinghy, had offered to steer the boat carrying around 40 people across the channel in exchange for free passage for himself on 14 December 2022, prosecutors alleged.

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But Bah told the court that he had helmed the boat under duress from smugglers and had agreed to steer it before seeing the vessel, which was only built for 20 passengers. 

When he saw the unseaworthy dinghy, he claimed he refused to pilot it, but was beaten and threatened with death by the smugglers.

But prosecutors told jurors that Bah had a “duty of care” to his fellow passengers and was therefore responsible for the deaths of the four people known to have drowned when the vessel sank.

Bah has been charged with four counts of manslaughter, one for each of those who drowned, and for facilitating illegal entry. 

Pilot 'an angel'

According to the campaign group, Captain Support, which was observing the trial, many of the survivors testified that Bah saved their lives, with one describing him as an "angel".

For the group, Bah's conviction is part of a "a violent escalation in the persecution of migrants to ‘Stop the Boats'," while campaigners have warned that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent.

'Ibrahima is not a criminal. None of us are criminals. We saw our friends under the boat'

- shipwreck survivor

The Home Office has long branded small boat pilots as "people smugglers". The 2022 Nationality and Borders Act introduced a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for small boat pilots.

"This case could very easily mark the start of many more boat pilot trials of exactly this kind," journalist Nicola Kelly posted on X.

In a report for the Byline Times, Kelly spoke to a survivor of the wreck who reportedly said: 

“Ibrahima is not a criminal. None of us are criminals. We saw our friends under the boat. We saw them die out at sea. Why can the government not see that we are not to blame for this?”

'Please help me bro'

A report into the wreck by Alarm Phone, a hotline for people in distress at sea, found that the boat started sinking after it reached the fishing vessel and that its crew failed to immediately issue a Mayday relay.

According to the report, Utopia 56, Alarm Phone’s partner association in northern France, received a message at 02:53 am French time from a boat in distress. 

A minute later, they received a voice note that said, “Hello brother, we are in a boat and we have a problem; please help…Please help me bro, please, please. We are in the water, we have a family.”

Alarm Phone and Utopia 56 reportedly called the French coastguard at 2:57 am and sent a follow-up email an hour later, but according to Alarm Phone, there was “no apparent rescue effort from the French side”.

The hotlines lost contact with the boat and were only later able to piece together what happened from survivors’ testimonies.

'We were screaming and shouting and saying that we are going down… They were coming and looking and saying no and going away'

- shipwreck survivor

Without any rescue assets nearby, multiple survivors told Alarm Phone that Bah steered towards a French fishing boat which refused to help them.

“We were screaming and shouting and saying that we are going down… They were coming and looking and saying no and going away," a survivor told Alarm Phone.

The dinghy then steered towards another trawler, the UK-flagged Arcturus.

According to testimonies given to Alarm Phone, the crew either did not notice or ignored the boat in distress.

“We were screaming and shouting. They ignored us initially until we got close enough,” a survivor testified.

“One person jumped from the dinghy to the fishing boat and then managed to get the attention of the crew by pulling on one of the chains that was hanging off the fishing boat,” an Alarm Phone member told Middle East Eye.

'They had to rescue themselves'

According to survivors' testimonies, it was not immediately clear if and how the fishing vessel would rescue them.

‘They said they don’t know how to get us out of the water. They said they would call for help from the police. They pulled the man from the chains onto the deck. There were 45 of us still on the boat,” a survivor said.

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The crew’s hesitancy exacerbated the sense of panic on the dinghy.

In desperation, the passengers stood up in the vessel, ripping through its floor and plunging into the water. 

Alarm Phone reported that 11 people were fished out by the crew, but that the half-wrecked dinghy drifted away with most of the passengers clinging to its still-inflated rim.

A survivor recalled they were in the water for over half an hour.

When the crew retrieved the remnants of the boat, some of its passengers were missing.

“It’s not unexpected that the boat could break in these circumstances with an untrained crew and unsuitable boat rescue,” an Alarm phone member said.

They had to rescue themselves. There was no search and rescue operation for them,” he added. 

'After they took photographs, they helped'

The captain of the fishing vessel, Ray Strachan, testified in court that he was awoken around 2:30am UK time and informed there was someone in the water. The Dover Coastguard reported an alert sent at 3:04am. 

“The initial alert we sent was at 1:53 am,” an Alarm Phone member told MEE. 

“So there seems to be 30 minutes in which we know the captain was awake and aware of people in the water.”

Strachan testified that instead of immediately deploying life-saving flotation devices, his first priority was to film and photograph the sinking dinghy. 

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According to Alarm Phone, the images date from 2:45 am, 15 minutes before an alert was sent to the coastguard.

"They initially didn’t help, they just took pictures for the police. […] At first they [were] dismissive, but after they took photos, they helped," said a survivor, according to Alarm Phone.

“Had he informed them earlier and had this mass casualty response been initiated 30 minutes earlier, there wouldn't have been the same loss of life,” an Alarm Phone member told MEE. “Thirty minutes is a long time in eight-degree water in December.”

“The other big factor is that there was no aerial surveillance that night, so this boat was basically undetected,” he told MEE. 

“It is a bit atypical because usually the boats are spotted leaving the French coast or the UK Coast Guard.”

British coastguards are under investigation in France, following the filing of complaints for “involuntary manslaughter” and “failure to render aid” by the refugee charity Utopia 56, which claimed that the French and British authorities were too slow to respond to the British Channel wreck.

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