The RNLI has vowed to continue rescuing people “without judgement or preference” as it is bombarded with hateful emails as part of a far-right campaign.
The lifeboat charity has been targeted over operations involving migrant boats in the English Channel, which are coordinated by government agencies.
The extremist political party Britain First mounted a new campaign on Thursday, sending emails and messages out to supporters urging them to join a “complaints drive aimed at the RNLI to pressure them to abandon their support for illegal immigrant [sic] and people trafficking and focus instead on saving British lives”.
The group set up an automated online form that sends emails written by Britain First leaders to the RNLI’s chief executive, Mark Dowie.
The messages do not disclose any link to the group, but claim to be from “concerned citizens” and “taxpayers”.
“I am very, very angry that RNLI boats are being used in the English Channel to ferry illegal immigrants into Britain,” reads one version. “I urge you to cease these treacherous activities.”
Another option claims to be from someone who has “huge respect for the RNLI” but finds its “recent support for illegal immigration and people trafficking in the English Channel abhorrent”.
The RNLI’s rescue operations do not meet the definition of people trafficking, or smuggling.
It is tasked by HM Coastguard and hands over responsibility for rescued migrants to relevant authorities when it reaches land.
Britain First’s website claimed that almost 3,000 emails had been sent by Friday afternoon, but the figure could not be independently verified.
A spokesperson for the RNLI confirmed that they had already received numerous emails generated through the group’s platform.
“The RNLI is proud of the humanitarian work of its volunteer lifeboat crews in the Channel and we are grateful for the outpouring of support we’ve recently received,” the spokesperson added.
“The recent tragic deaths in the Channel are a sad reminder of just how dangerous it is to go to sea in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in boats not fit for the crossing, especially as winter approaches.
“We are a voluntary lifesaving charity, and will rescue anyone in trouble at sea, as the RNLI has been doing for nearly 200 years, without judgement or preference.”
Counter-extremism group Hope Not Hate has launched a petition in response to Britain First’s campaign, allowing people to send messages of solidarity with the RNLI.
Rosie Carter, Hope Not Hate’s director of policy, said: “Britain First claim to love this country, but denigrate and smear any of the things that are great about it.
“RNLI is a fantastic organisation, made of volunteers who risk their lives to save people at sea. Denigrating a charity which saves lives in order to fuel anti-migrant hate is despicable.”
The RNLI has been repeatedly singled out for criticism by right-wing groups and politicians, amid record crossings over the English Channel.
Last month, a group of fishermen allegedly tried to block an RNLI lifeboat from travelling to rescue asylum seekers, days before at least 27 people drowned off the coast of Calais.
A spokesperson for the RNLI confirmed the incident had been reported to the police, and that the lifeboat was eventually able to launch.
The charity was previously forced to defend itself in July after being labelled a “taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs” by former Ukip leader Nigel Farage and others.
But it saw an outpouring of public support, including a 2,000 per cent daily increase in donations, after revealing how its volunteers were receiving abuse and publishing harrowing footage of rescues.
A parliamentary report released on Wednesday said the government’s operations in the Channel currently “rely heavily on voluntary organisations, such as the RNLI, or independent lifeboats”, who are tasked by the police and HM Coastguard.
A controversial suite of laws proposed by the government would have allowed rescuers to be prosecuted for “facilitating the entry of asylum seekers”, by bringing them ashore.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, has tabled an amendment to the Nationality and Borders bill, creating a specific legal exemption for rescuers, following uproar over the prospect of criminalising RNLI volunteers.
The clause says that someone cannot be prosecuted for “an act done by or on behalf of, or co-ordinated by HM Coastguard”, and that it would be a defence to show the people brought ashore had been in danger or distress at sea.