On a chilly winter’s night, a frantic 999 call for help from a rubber dinghy in the English Channel was received at Dungeness Lifeboat Station in Kent.
It was made by a man with a heavy foreign accent as he stood at the helm of the flimsy craft, called Janhazel, which was carrying passengers on choppy seas between northern France and the White Cliffs of Dover.
Within half an hour of the emergency call, the station’s lifeboat set out to search for the Janhazel, which had lost its way. No questions asked. No demand for payment.
The volunteer crew summoned from their warm beds, almost a year ago on January 31, were doing what they always do: saving those in peril on the sea.
On a chilly winter’s night, a frantic 999 call for help from a rubber dinghy in the English Channel was received at Dungeness Lifeboat Station in Kent
Yet shivering in the fragile dinghy were eight Albanians in thin clothes making an illegal sailing towards a new life in the UK.
And the shadowy figure with his mobile phone was a people-smuggler dressed warmly in a lifejacket over a wetsuit and carrying a dry set of clothes, with £500 in cash protected from the elements in a plastic bag.
An Albanian, too, he was hoping to make yet more money — tens of thousands of pounds — from his passengers on the illicit voyage.
It took almost four hours for the Dungeness lifeboat to find the Janhazel with the help of a coastguard search helicopter.
A video shows the brave crew in yellow oilskins lifting the nine Albanians to safety as waves buffeted both their craft and the tiny inflatable.
When it was all over, dawn had broken and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) crewmen returned to shore with those they had saved wrapped in thermal blankets as the now-empty Janhazel was towed behind.
It took almost four hours for the Dungeness lifeboat to find the Janhazel with the help of a coastguard search helicopter
Of course, no one knew then, though some of the crew may have suspected it, but one of Britain’s favourite charities, the RNLI, had just helped a human trafficker and his clients to safety.
Once ashore, a 41-year-old Albanian, Afrim Xhekaliu, who had been steering the boat, was quizzed by police and Border Force officials.
He was discovered to be ‘an important part of an organised crime group smuggling people into the UK’, according to National Crime Agency investigators who last summer took him to court, where he was jailed for six years.
And what of the other eight foreigners, including a woman, on the Janhazel that night? Did they get the chance to claim asylum in Britain? And where are they now? The answers, of course, are anyone’s guess.
Whatever the reality, a spotlight is now being shone on such lifeboat rescues after the Government revealed that, since October, 434 migrants, many of them Iranians, have been discovered trying to cross the Channel from France.
Once ashore, a 41-year-old Albanian, Afrim Xhekaliu, who had been steering the boat, was quizzed by police and Border Force officials
On Christmas Day, 40 migrants arrived in Kent on five vessels, two of which were assisted to shore by lifeboat crews.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid has declared that the sudden influx of boat people is a ‘major incident’.
He has asked the Ministry of Defence to send the Navy to the Channel to help ‘deter’ the journeys and announced a return of two Border Force cutters from the Mediterranean, to support the pair already operating in the Channel.
Last night it emerged that a Navy patrol ship, HMS Mersey, is already in the Channel and patrolling the migrant route.
Back at home, the RNLI has played an heroic role during the migrant boat surge. The Mail has been told by the charity that lifeboat crews from Dover as well as nearby Littlestone and Walmer were called out a total of 25 times over November and December to rescue ‘suspected migrants’.
Other lifeboat stations, including Dungeness, on the Kent coast are believed to have been busy, too, as the Channel becomes a favoured route for illegals trying to slip into the UK.
A video shows the brave crew in yellow oilskins lifting the nine Albanians to safety as waves buffeted both their craft and the tiny inflatable
As one lifeboat crewman from Kent has told the Mail: ‘We are getting tired. Our families are tired, too. There have been migrant rescues night after night when we have day jobs.
We are volunteers wanting to save people in difficulty at sea. We do that willingly, although some locals are raising their eyebrows that it is migrants we now often help. They expect us only to rescue fishermen, sailors or swimmers.’
The rights and wrongs are the subject of heated debate — especially among those who give generously to the RNLI. One is John Wassell, a 75-year-old retired civil servant from Birmingham, who sent regular donations of around £10 a month by standing order to the charity’s headquarters in Poole, Dorset. That is until the migrant crisis blew up.
John wrote to the Mail saying that it was not the charity’s job to rescue those trying to enter Britain illegally. ‘Surely the Navy or the Border Force should be doing this?’ he said.
This image provided by the Marine Nationale (French Navy) shows migrants aboard a rubber boat after being intercepted by French authorities, off the port of Calais on Christmas Day
The cost of sending out a lifeboat is £1,500 a time (a figure the RNLI does not collate, though Dover’s MP Charlie Elphicke says it is accurate).
John Wassell says he holidays in Brixham, Devon, a seaside resort with a lifeboat station. ‘I have now stopped my donations to the RNLI. I send money by cheque directly to the Brixham Lifeboat Station.
‘I feel the RNLI is having to step in because of the ineptitude of the Government, and it should not be doing so. I know other people who donate to the lifeboats feel the same.’
One of them is Hugh Thompson, a 73-year-old from Sittingbourne, Kent. He said: ‘I find the sight of highly-acclaimed RNLI vessels acting as unpaid Border Force patrol boats distressing.
‘Not only are volunteer seamen being put into danger, but they’re operating on the front line of a crisis that has no precedent in UK waters.’
The number of disgruntled RNLI supporters is growing. Diana Matra, a 74-year-old widow from Ashford, Kent, knows the Dungeness lifeboat volunteers and has seen their hard work.
Last night it emerged that a Navy patrol ship, HMS Mersey, is already in the Channel and patrolling the migrant route
She sent a letter to us saying simply: ‘I wonder how many of these wonderful volunteer crewmen signed up as a taxi service for illegal migrants. Shocking!’
Geoff Pringle, a 67-year-old businessman who supports the RNLI with monthly donations, told the Mail: ‘As a sailor and diver, I know this privately funded charity, crewed entirely by volunteers, will be on hand if the need should arise.
‘But it cannot be in two places at one time, and if its resources continue to be diverted to recovering commercial passengers from people-smuggling operations, the time will surely come when it is unable to respond to bona fide Mayday emergencies.’
He added: ‘While their purpose is “saving lives at sea”, should this include those who pay to cross the world’s busiest waterway in inappropriate vessels, knowingly putting their own lives at risk, together with those who are being sent out to recover them?’
There are others sharing his worries. They wonder what on earth is going on at the well-heeled charity’s posh HQ in Poole, Dorset, where there appeared to be reticence over Christmas to discuss lifeboat rescues of migrants — and, inevitably, some traffickers.
On the websites of lifeboat stations in Kent, there are glossy pictures of fund-raising days and educational visits by schoolchildren.
There are heart-lifting stories of recent rescues, including one off Dover in November when two sailors got into trouble at the harbour entrance and were brought to shore and given ‘a hot cup of tea’.
Yet there is nothing the Mail could find on the Dover website that alluded to the numerous ‘shouts’ — as lifeboat callouts are called — from migrants trying to reach Britain.
A search on the main RNLI website putting in the word ‘migrants’ comes up with no news.
The RNLI’s national spokesman, Laura Haslam, said yesterday that this is a deliberate omission to protect crews from further unwarranted criticism.
There had been 16 complaints, she said, and six direct debits of donations have been stopped over the migrant rescues.
However, two donations have come in from individuals precisely because they applaud the RNLI for saving the migrants’ lives.
She explained: ‘The lost support is disappointing for us as a charity which exists to save lives from drowning and will always help those in trouble on the water.
Each year, our crews and lifeguards rescue around 30,000 people, no matter who they are or where they come from.
Migrants being rescued on January 31. There had been 16 complaints, she said, and six direct debits of donations have been stopped over the migrant rescues
‘Our lifesavers do not judge those they are called on to rescue, their status, their motives for being on the water, or what brought them into danger.’
It is not the first time the charity has faced turbulence in recent times. It has been accused of being top heavy, with well-paid office staff who follow a ‘health and safety’ rulebook which can be at odds with the wishes of RNLI devotees shelling out hard-earned pounds and pennies.
Last year, for instance, the charity sacked two lifeboatmen when a mug depicting a volunteer’s head superimposed on a pornographic image was found by an RNLI boss at Whitby Lifeboat Station in North Yorkshire.
The men were told by the RNLI that their involvement with the mug had gone ‘far beyond banter’. Their appeal to be reinstated was roundly dismissed.
While some supporters of the charity have stopped donations over the migrant issue, the charity is not about to run out of cash.
Published accounts show income of almost £190 million in 2017, including £135 million from legacies, £49 million from donations and £5.5 million from trading activities including the charity’s 165 shops, which are manned by volunteers. It is far more than the annual running costs of £176million.
Twenty years ago, the RNLI had 750 employees. By 2016, this had risen to 2,366, with 35 senior executives on salaries of more than £60,000, overseen by a chief executive on a total package of £162,705 that year.
Its French equivalent employs just 75 and 1,200 managerial roles are filled by volunteers.
The men were told by the RNLI that their involvement with the mug had gone ‘far beyond banter’. Their appeal to be reinstated was roundly dismisse
Last week, Dover’s Tory MP Mr Elphicke said the Government should bolster the coffers further by offering a substantial donation to cover the extra cost of saving migrants at sea.
‘Everyone knows that most of the migrants being rescued are by a RNLI volunteer lifeboat,’ he added. ‘It is their duty to rescue anyone in distress on the high seas.’
And that is the crux of the problem. Even loyal RNLI supporters question whether this is really the role of the charity. Or is the service being taken for a ride?
There are suspicions that people-smuggling gangs — which the Government warns are orchestrating the illegal Channel sea crossings and charging thousands of pounds a head to do so — are the real winners when the RNLI goes to sea to answer the migrants’ 999 distress calls.
Indeed, if what is happening on migrant routes elsewhere in the world is anything to go by, some emergency calls are a ruse by traffickers.
Their modus operandi is to sound the alarm, even if a boat is not in distress, because that is a sure way of getting a rescue vessel to carry their valuable migrant cargo to shore for them. So let us remind ourselves of last January and the Dungeness lifeboatmen’s rescue of the eight Albanians and their trafficker Afrim Xhekaliu.
Yet there is nothing the Mail could find on the Dover website that alluded to the numerous ‘shouts’ — as lifeboat callouts are called — from migrants trying to reach Britain
At his appearance in July at Lewes Crown Court, East Sussex, it emerged that he was an illegal immigrant with an address in Barnet, North London.
Before that January trip, he’d flown to Albania’s capital, Tirana, and, from there, using his mobile phone, he’d set up a similar smuggling attempt. In one text message he asked a contact: ‘We have a trip set for Saturday. Would you have anyone wanting to come over?’
His contact replied: ‘Yes mate. I will get them ready on Friday and let you know, hope many people.’
Xhekaliu, the court was told, was ‘clearly prepared for the Janhazel operation as he brought dry clothes in a waterproof bag, while the others were soaked and suffering hypothermia’.
The trafficker refused to comment when interviewed by police, but when his home was examined by National Crime Agency officers, they found fake EU country IDs.
A search of his mobile phone found that before his visit back to Albania, he’d been looking for inflatable boats for sale.
For the moment, he’s in prison. However, he can content himself in the knowledge that, with the help of the dutiful RNLI’s Dungeness lifeboat crew, he succeeded in illegally bringing eight migrants into Britain.
Whether that fact is encouraging more men like him to follow suit is something the charity’s supporters are entitled to wonder.