Published On: 1st March 2024Categories: General

Last week, Ibrahima Bah, a teenager from Senegal, was convicted of illegal entry into the UK and manslaughter by gross negligence. We are deeply concerned and saddened at this result, both in the impact on Ibrahima and the perpetuation of the criminalisation of seeking asylum that this case demonstrates.

Details of the Case

Ibrahima Bah was arrested in December 2022 after the dinghy he was driving across the Channel broke apart next to the fishing vessel Arcturus. Four men are known to have drowned, and up to five are still missing. One of those who drowned was Allaji Ibrahima Ba, 18 years old from Guinea who had travelled with Ibrahima from Libya and who Ibrahima described as his brother.

There were multiple factors that contributed to the shipwreck and resulting deaths, including the boat’s poor construction, passengers standing in the dinghy simultaneously, the delay of the French Coastguard in launching a search and rescue operation, and the delay of the fishing vessel Arcturus in informing the Dover Coastguard.

Ibrahima’s testimony explained that he had agreed to drive the boat in exchange for free passage for himself and his brother, but refused upon seeing the size of the boat compared to the number of passengers. He explained that the armed smugglers then beat him and forced him onboard to drive the boat. Many of the survivors testified that Ibrahima saved their lives by steering the dinghy towards the fishing vessel when it got into danger and described him as an ‘angel’, assisting passengers to board the vessel first and holding the rope to keep the collapsed dinghy alongside. Their testimony also corroborated that Ibrahima had been beaten and forced onboard the boat.

The prosecution argued that Ibrahima was not telling the truth about being forced to drive the boat, and suggested that even if he had been forced that he was responsible for the deaths as he did not turn the boat around.

This the second trial of this case following a previous trial resulting in a hung jury in July 2023. In this trial, the jury found Ibrahima guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence by a majority of 10-2 and guilty of illegal entry into the UK unanimously.

Ibrahima was sentenced on 23 February to 9 years and six months imprisonment.  

Criminalisation of seeking asylum

As the first shipwreck survivor to face manslaughter charges for the deaths of fellow passengers, Ibrahima’s conviction represents another troubling expansion of the criminalisation of seeking asylum.

Despite the many contributing factors to the shipwreck and his attempts to assist his fellow passengers, Ibrahima has become a convenient scapegoat in this tragedy. For example, the French and UK Coastguards have faced no consequences at the time of writing for their failure to assist people in distress.

On broader level, Ibrahima’s conviction hides the reality of the UK’s border regime which makes these journeys inevitable. For the vast majority of migrants, there are no safe routes to the UK to seek asylum. It is not possible to make a claim of asylum without being physically present in the UK, and arrival into the UK without valid entry clearance is illegal. It is simply not possible to come to the UK to seek asylum in a way that complies with current immigration rules.

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 expanded the provisions of the Immigration Act 1971 to create new criminal offences. Under the previous rules, there was a key legal distinction between ‘arrival’ and ‘entry’ into the country whereby arrival takes place when a person arrives at a designated port with an approved area, whereas entry only takes place when someone passes immigration control or leaves an approved area.

A recent report published by the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford and Border Criminologies concludes: “Despite the Government’s rhetoric, both offences target people with no role in organised criminal gangs. The vast majority of those convicted of both ‘illegal arrival’ and ‘facilitation’ had ongoing asylum claims. Victims of torture and trafficking, as well as children with ongoing age disputes, have also been prosecuted.

“Those who were charged faced short hearings in the magistrate courts, usually within 48 hours of their arrival. Proceedings were often complicated or significantly delayed by poor interpretation and faulty video link technology. Bail was routinely denied without proper consideration of each individual’s circumstances.”

The 2022 Act removed the significance of this distinction by making even arriving or attempting to arrive in the country without valid entry clearance a criminal offence. R v Mohamed [2023] EWCA Crim 211 confirmed that prosecuting asylum seekers is lawful under the Act. Whilst having a strong case for asylum will count as a factor against the need for prosecution, making an application without merit may increase the likelihood of prosecution.

Unsurprisingly, prosecutions have not acted as a deterrent for Channel crossings. Between June 2022 and October 2023, 253 people were convicted under the act for illegal entry. These prosecutions do nothing but criminalise and continue the suffering of vulnerable people seeking asylum, whose rights should be protected by the Refugee Convention to which the UK is a signatory.

Anti-black discrimination in criminal justice

Ibrahima’s case also highlights the structural racism of our criminal justice system. We are very concerned by the anti-migrant sentiment expressed by the captain of the fishing vessel Arcturus in an interview with GB news and the racial stereotypes in his witness testimony in describing Ibrahima as ‘mouthy’ and ‘ungrateful’. Ibrahima was convicted by an all-white jury, and it is disappointing to see that the testimonies of the survivors of the shipwreck, that were communicated via interpreters, appear to have been dismissed. The duress the Ibrahima was subjected to in driving this boat, and his efforts to save his fellow passengers have gone unnoticed, whilst the lethal and irrational border regime remain unchallenged.

Captain Support, a group supporting Ibrahima and others facing criminalisation for migration, have said of the case: “The result of Ibrahima’s retrial is a miscarriage of justice. Seeking asylum is not a crime. His actions to steer the dinghy towards the Arcturus and assist fellow passengers following the shipwreck saved lives. They should be commended, not condemned.

“However, Ibrahima is not alone but one of hundreds facing prison time for having come to this country to claim asylum. The fact he was arrested and successfully prosecuted sets a worrying precedent for the future. People are forced into precarious and dangerous crossing by sea through the cruelty of the border. Then, they are blamed for it. The support of civil society groups socially, legally, and politically is invaluable in our shared campaign to right this wrong.”

We offer our heartfelt support to Ibrahima and all those targeted by these prosecutions, and hope to see his conviction overturned.

Image: Captain Support