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Asylum seekers who steered boats to UK shores fight against 'smuggling' convictions

Migrants are brought into Dover docks by Border Force staff in Dover, England on 9 September 2021 [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]
Migrants are brought into Dover docks by Border Force staff in Dover, England on 9 September 2021 [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

Imprisoned asylum seekers who were spotted steering dinghies during crossings over the English Channel are appealing to have their convictions overturned, as the British government continues to label them as smugglers and traffickers.

According to the newspaper, The Independent, twelve asylum seekers are fighting the convictions imposed upon them in the Court of Appeal, after an Iranian asylum seeker won a landmark case against his charges in April.

The asylum seekers, whose cases were publicised, include three Iranians and one Kuwaiti, who were all accused of steering their dinghies during their journey to the UK's shores across the English Channel from France.

The Iranians were Samyar Bani, who was jailed for six years in 2019, Ghodratallah Zadeh, who was last year imprisoned for two years and Fariboz Rakei, who was sentenced to four and a half years in March after being recorded steering his dinghy.

The Kuwaiti is Mohamoud Al-Anzi, who was sentenced to three years and nine months in February, after being accused of steering a boat carrying 11 others.

The UK's Home Office, led by the controversial Home Secretary, Priti Patel, labelled the dozen asylum seekers and others in their position as human traffickers and smugglers – criminals who the government aims to curtail and prosecute.

READ: Thirty-one refugees drown in English Channel, UK PM blames people trafficking gangs

The prosecuted asylum seekers deny that accusation, however. Although some of them had their "offenses" proven by the Border Force's drone footage, they insist that their intentions were not to smuggle migrants but to make it safely to land after being left to operate the dinghies by the smugglers they paid.

Zadeh, for example, said that he was pressured into steering the craft himself, in return for a "reduced rate" charged by his smuggler. Rakei also insisted that he was put under pressure by smugglers, forcing him to use his maritime skills gained from his experience in the Iranian military.

It has also been claimed that asylum seekers in dinghies take turns to steer, rather than there being a designated steerer.

Soon after Rakei's sentencing, however, a Court of Appeal ruling allowed small-boat pilots to have a defence in court for the first time, enabling them to fight their cases. That subsequently led to the cases of 11 other asylum seekers who steered boats being dropped.

The UK's Crown Prosecution Service also said that migrants will not be charged with a crime if their "sole intention is to be intercepted and brought into port for asylum claims to be made."

Such opportunities for leniency have not stopped government and Home Secretary, Patel, from attempting to make the law harder on asylum seekers entering illegally, though.

Under a proposed clause in the Nationality and Borders Bill, Patel aims to increase the sentence of illegally entering the UK from six months in prison to four years, and also to increase the penalty for assisting unlawful immigration from 14 years to a maximum life imprisonment.

READ: One politician is steering Britain to the far-right

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