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Asylum seeker boat pilot found guilty of killing migrants who drowned in Channel

Court artist drawing of Ibrahima Bah (Elizabeth Cook/PA)
Court artist drawing of Ibrahima Bah (Elizabeth Cook/PA)

An asylum seeker who piloted an “unseaworthy” boat where four passengers drowned in the English Channel has been found guilty of manslaughter.

Ibrahima Bah, who is over 18, killed four other migrants while seeking passage from France to the UK on December 14 2022.

Bah, from Senegal, was found guilty by the jury by a majority of 10 to 2 of four counts of manslaughter and was found guilty unanimously of facilitating illegal entry to the UK following a retrial at Canterbury Crown Court.

During the trial, jurors were told the home-built, low-quality inflatable should have had no more than 20 people on board but, in fact, tried to carry at least 43 people across the English Channel that night.

While the majority of travellers paid thousands of euros to smugglers for a spot in the overcrowded vessel, prosecutor Duncan Atkinson KC said it appears Bah did not pay for his journey because he piloted the dingy, therefore owing his fellow passengers a “duty of care”.

But Mr Atkinson said Bah was not trained or licensed to lead the voyage and there was insufficient safety equipment such as life jackets and no flares or radio on board.

Mr Atkinson said: “He, as the pilot, owed to the passengers of that small and vulnerable boat for their safety during the crossing that he had agreed to make.

“He was aware that the boat was overcrowded, lacking in safety equipment and, as it took in water, that it was increasingly unseaworthy.”

The court heard that when the boat got into trouble a number of migrants inside the boat described water reaching their knees within 30 minutes of leaving the French coast.

Mr Atkinson said: “Despite these increasing and obvious problems, the defendant continued to head into UK waters.”

The jury heard that a crew on a UK fishing boat called the Arcturus came across the sinking boat and tried to rescue the passengers, with help from the RNLI, air ambulance and UK Border Force.

A total of 39 survivors were brought to shore in the port of Dover.

Ibrahima Bah court case
Ibrahima Bah appeared by videolink at an earlier hearing at Folkestone Magistrates’ Court (Elizabeth Cook/PA)

The exact number of migrants who drowned is unknown as it appears at least one migrant’s body was not recovered, Mr Atkinson said.

Three of four of the people who died were known only as unknown male persons, while one man was named Hajratullah Ahmadi.

During the trial, one asylum seeker, Amrullah Ahmadzai, described how everyone on the boat was screaming and trying to call for help on their mobile phones during the journey, before being rescued by the fishing boat.

He described how the skipper tried to steer the dinghy towards the fishing vessel to help the passengers, and was shouting at everyone ‘calm down, I’m going to take you there’.

Boat used in the crossing
The boat, described as ‘unseaworthy’ and ‘low quality’, had tried to carry at least 43 migrants across the English Channel (Crown Prosecution Service/PA)

The court heard from witnesses that before the voyage the group of migrants were transported in three cars to the shoreline, organised by Kurdish agents.

The smugglers also brought the boat in a car and got the passengers to help pump it up.

Another traveller, Ghanam Gul Ahmadzai, said the smugglers were “cruel” to the migrants, sometimes beating them up to pump the dingy.

Giving evidence in court, Bah said that smugglers beat him up and threatened to kill him when he refused to pilot the boat.

The defendant told jurors he agreed to pilot the boat before he had seen it, in exchange for free travel for himself and his friend.

But when he saw the boat after it was inflated on the beach, he changed his mind because it was too small for the number of people travelling.

Mr Atkinson said Bah was not telling the truth about being forced to pilot the boat, and that he was changing his story as to why he did not want to drive the vessel.

The court heard that it was Bah’s dream to come to the UK to claim asylum, and he had left Senegal in 2019.

He told police, when he arrived in the UK, that he had travelled from Senegal to Mali, Algeria and then Libya, before going by boat to Italy using smugglers.

He had previously worked on fishing boats in Senegal, sometimes helping with fishing and steering the boat, and assisted in piloting the boat from Libya to Italy.

Libby Clark from the CPS said: “Bah claimed that he had sailed boats before and, as a result, received free passage, whereas everyone else on the boat had paid thousands of Euros to make the tragic journey.

“The boat he piloted was never designed to undertake a crossing in the world’s busiest shipping lane and would have been all but invisible to other ships. Navigation was carried out with just mobile phones, as there were no other navigational aids available.

“There is no evidence to suggest that Bah had any training in piloting a boat like this or keeping people safe and, as the pilot, he assumed responsibility for ensuring the safety of his fellow passengers.

“Any reasonable person would have recognised that by piloting such an ill-equipped and overloaded boat in such dangerous circumstances, there was an obvious risk of serious harm to the passengers. As a result of Bah’s actions, four men tragically lost their lives in the Channel that night. Our thoughts remain with their families.”

Bah will be sentenced at Canterbury Crown Court on Friday February 23.