Without pilot 'we would have all died' in English Channel, migrant tells court

Court artist drawing by Elizabeth Cook of Ibrahima Bah. Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

An asylum seeker on board a dinghy when four others drowned in the English Channel has told a court that if it was not for the driver "we would have all died".

Amrullah Ahmadzai, from Afghanistan, described how everyone was screaming and trying to call for help on their mobile phones during a journey in an inflatable vessel, before being rescued by a fishing boat.

Ibrahima Bah, who is believed to have piloted the boat, is on trial for manslaughter of the four migrants who died while seeking passage from France to the UK on December 14 2022.

Jurors had heard 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.

  • Emergency services were called to the scene when a small boat began to sink off the Dungeness coast in December 2022

At Canterbury Crown Court on Wednesday (31 January), Mr Ahmadzai recalled the boat getting into trouble after about an hour on the sea, with water filling up the boat reaching above his knees.

He described how the skipper tried to steer the dinghy towards a fishing boat to help the passengers.

Mr Ahmadzai said: "I could see he was driving towards the fishing boat but at the same time he was shouting at everyone ‘calm down, I’m going to take you there’ but no-one was listening to him.

"It’s not his fault, he was trying his best… they were all scared and screaming and they all stood up suddenly."

He added: "It was because of this driver who played a big part in our lives that took us closer to the fishing boat.

"If it wasn’t for him we would have all died."

Canterbury Crown Court. Credit: PA

Mr Ahmadzai said that when the fellow migrants in the boat stood up the water rose more and the boarded floor went down, leading to people getting into the water or stuck in the middle of the boat.

Another witness, Ghanam Gul Ahmadzai, on the boat that night, described how the wooden floor "burst" underneath as they got closer to the fishing boat.

He said: "We all fell into the water, all the boys, some of them were hanging on to the remains of the boat we were actually travelling in, some of them were actually in the water."

Prosecutor Duncan Atkinson had told jurors Bah, who is over 18, owed his fellow passengers a "duty of care" by being the pilot, but he was not trained or licensed to steer the dinghy, and was aware it was overcrowded and lacked safety equipment.

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.

Mr Ahmadzai said: "During that time they were very cruel to migrants. They forced them and sometimes they beat them to pump the dinghy.

"The reason they are cruel (is) they’re worried and scared the police might come and send us back, so that’s why they’re in a rush."

Emergency services were called to the scene when a small boat began to sink off the Dungeness coast in December 2022. Credit: ITV News Meridian

Mr Gul Ahmadzai, who is also from Afghanistan, said the boat was then put into the water and the migrants jumped into the boat from the sea.

He described how before the boat "ripped apart" that it started to fill with water slowly and then gradually increased to under his knee in the boat.

He added there was one person with a bucket with him "throwing water back into the sea".

Bah, who is also accused of facilitating a breach of immigration law, denies all charges.

On Monday (29 January), jurors heard that Bah’s defence is likely to be that he was acting under duress and that he did not know he was facilitating a breach of immigration law.

The trial continues.

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