Channel migrants: Asylum seeker cleared of people smuggling was 'scapegoat'

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Image caption, Fouad Kakaei's people smuggling conviction has been overturned

An Iranian asylum seeker cleared of people smuggling has said he was made a "scapegoat" by British authorities.

Fouad Kakaei, who steered a dinghy across the English Channel, was found not guilty at a second trial after appealing against his first conviction.

His barrister believes a law intended to prosecute people smugglers is being used on asylum seekers, because they are "easy targets".

The Home Office said it had a new plan to "fix the broken asylum system".

More than 19,000 people have reached the UK in small boats since the start of 2020.

Last year, 54 people were arrested for facilitating illegal entry into the UK across the Channel, according to figures obtained by BBC News.

Image source, Home Office
Image caption, Iranian Fouad Kakaei said he had to pilot the dinghy across the Channel because it was a "a matter of life and death"

However, 33 of them were "subsequently identified as asylum seekers", with 18 of those going on to face prosecution, the Home Office revealed in a Freedom of Information request.

Mr Kakaei's lawyer Aneurin Brewer said he was concerned the government was "taking easy targets" by prosecuting people on the boats.

Mr Kakaei was jailed for two years and two months in January, but the conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal.

The court found it could not be proven he intended to avoid detection and enter the UK illegally, as the dinghy was intercepted by Border Force and all those onboard claimed asylum.

'Life and death'

He was found not guilty by a jury following a retrial at Canterbury Crown Court in May.

Mr Kakaei paid smugglers for transport into the UK and was put onto a boat, he said.

"The condition of the boat was not satisfactory and nobody was able to steer it. I could see everybody's life was in danger, to save myself and the lives of the rest... I started to take control of the boat.

"It was a matter of life and death."

During his time in custody he said he realised that "one way or the other they wanted to find me guilty... they wanted a scapegoat".

Image source, Home Office
Image caption, It was the second time Mr Kakaei tried to enter the UK, after being returned to Denmark initially

It was the second crossing Mr Kakaei had made from France. He was deported to Denmark after the first occasion because he had already started an asylum application there, but said authorities rejected his claim.

He said he fled Iran because his "life was in danger", adding the past five years in Europe had been "hell".

Mr Brewer said it was not a crime to arrive in the UK and claim asylum.

He said the law used was "designed to protect or defend vulnerable migrants" like Mr Kakaei, not prosecute him.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) reviewed all similar cases after Mr Kakaei's successful appeal and subsequently scrapped 12 cases involving people accused of piloting small boats. Seven other cases are still active, it said.

The CPS published new guidance that recommends migrants should not be prosecuted in this way without strong evidence.

However, the Nationality and Borders Bill, currently going through the House of Commons, will be tougher on migrants and smugglers.

A Home Office spokesman said: "We will welcome people through safe and legal routes whilst preventing abuse of the system, cracking down on illegal entry and the criminality associated with it."

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