Asylum seeker boat pilot detained for more than nine years over Channel crossing deaths

230224 Ibrahima BAH MERIDIAN
Ibrahima Bah Credit: Kent Police

An asylum seeker has been detained for nine years and six months for the manslaughter of fellow migrants who drowned trying to cross the English Channel.

Ibrahima Bah was found guilty of killing four migrants when he piloted an "unseaworthy" boat between France and the UK on December 14 2022.

During a retrial at Canterbury Crown Court, Bah said smugglers threatened to kill him if he did not drive the boat but the prosecution said he was not telling the truth and he owed his fellow passengers a "duty of care" as their pilot.

Jurors reached a majority verdict of 10 to two in what is believed to be the first conviction of its kind on Monday.

They also found the Senegalese national unanimously guilty of facilitating illegal entry to the UK.

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Ibrahima Bah (right) at Canterbury Crown Court during his sentencing. Credit: PA

Sentencing Bah on Friday, Mr Justice Johnson KC, said: "The boat was wholly inadequate, and not remotely seaworthy for a Channel crossing.

"It was a death trap, just as every boat of its type which sets of across the Channel in similar circumstances is a death trap – the fact that in many cases fatalities do not occur is not remotely reassuring.

"What happened is an utter tragedy for those who died and for their families."

"It was made of substandard and insufficiently robust material – it had no rigid hull, no seating, no sufficiently powerful engine, no lights, no navigation equipment, no charts, no compass, no (radio), no emergency equipment, no flares, no fire extinguisher, no first aid kits, no food and water, no paddles, no toolkits, no life raft, no waterproofs, no life jackets, and an insufficient number of buoyancy aids, which were not manufactured to any recognised standard.

"It was grossly overcrowded (and) you were travelling across the busiest shipping lane in the world, on a cold winter’s night."

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During the trial, jurors were told that the home-built, low-quality inflatable should have had no more than 20 people on board but carried at least 43 people in 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".

Mr Atkinson said Bah was not trained or licensed to lead the voyage.

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

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

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

He described how the skipper tried to steer the dinghy towards the fishing vessel to help the passengers, and without him "we would have all died".

A crew on a UK fishing boat called the Arcturus came across the sinking dinghy 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.

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 the people who died were known only as unknown male persons while the other man was named as Hajratullah Ahmadi, a 31-year-old married man who had come from Afghanistan and had a six-year-old daughter at the time of his death.

Supporters of Bah attended the sentencing at Canterbury Crown Court on Friday. Credit: ITV Meridian

Bah was sentenced to nine years and six months for each manslaughter conviction and four years for facilitating illegal entry to the UK, all to run concurrently.

The judge concluded Bah is at least 20 years old but his exact age is unknown.

He will initially be detained in a young offenders’ institute and will be eligible for release subject to licence conditions after he has served two thirds of his sentence.

Supporters of Bah attended the sentencing and are expected to hold a protest outside the Home Office in London on Friday evening.

Following the verdict on Monday, Captain Support UK, a solidarity platform for those accused of driving boats to Europe, said Bah’s conviction was a "violent escalation in the persecution of migrants to 'Stop the Boats'".

However, Illegal Immigration Minister Michael Tomlinson said on X: "Ibrahima Bah put dozens of lives in extreme danger by taking charge of a perilous and illegal small boat crossing. It is right that he has been brought to justice today.

"Once you get into a small boat, criminal gangs don’t care whether you live or die."

A spokesperson for the Marine Accident Investigation Branch said: "MAIB’s investigation into the fatal accident involving an inflatable boat in the English Channel in December 2022 is complete.

"Due to legal action, MAIB postponed the consultation and publication until after proceedings concluded. The consultation process on the report will commence shortly."