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The Royal National Lifeboat Institution has raised more than £200,000 in a single day after defending its work rescuing migrants at risk of drowning in the Channel, while volunteering inquiries have almost quadrupled.
The RNLI said it had been inundated with donations and messages of support since its chief executive hit out at Nigel Farage’s claim that it was running a “migrant taxi service”.
In an interview with the Guardian, Mark Dowie, the chief executive of the RNLI, said it was the charity’s moral and legal duty to rescue migrants in danger in the sea, and that he was very proud of its humanitarian work.
The RNLI, which runs the UK’s network of volunteer lifeboats, said it received £200,000 in charitable donations on Wednesday – around 30 times its normal average of £6,000–£7,000 per day. During the same period, there was a 270% increase in people viewing volunteering opportunities on its website.
Jayne George, the RNLI fundraising director, said the donations had come from a mixture of one-off payments, new supporters and people increasing their regular contribution.
She said: “We are overwhelmed with the huge level of support we have received in the last couple of days. This was never a fundraising campaign – we simply wanted to tell the story of our crews and make it clear that our charity exists to save lives at sea. Our mission is to save every one. Our supporters’ kindness means so much to us. Without them we could not save lives at sea; every one is a lifesaver.”
George said that a small number of supporters had withdrawn their backing in response to the “polarising issue”.
The government has distanced itself from criticism of the charity. Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said the group did “vital work to protect people’s lives at sea”, and that the migrants’ journeys across the Channel were “dangerous and unnecessary”. He said the government was working to “tackle the issue” by going after the gangs and drivers involved.
Downing Street did not say whether Johnson had followed the lead of the health secretary, Sajid Javid, in making a donation to the RNLI.
Speaking to LBC, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said he didn’t think a “robust approach” to preventing small boats from crossing the Channel was at odds with the “heart and soul” of the RNLI.
He said: “I think they operate within the legal rules and that is part of this country. We are a big-hearted country. At the same time, if we are talking about the wider small boats issue, that is something where we need to come down as hard as is humanly possible, working with our French partners.”
The charity’s work was also widely praised on social media, and it has been trending on Twitter, with the likes of Nicola Sturgeon and Gary Lineker posting their support.
Nigel Farage appeared on GB News on Wednesday night and stood by his suggestion that the RNLI was being used as a “taxi service” for illegal trafficking gangs.
He said he had “massive admiration” for the organisation but he believed it was “doing the wrong thing” by rescuing migrants, and that this was leading to “division in coastal communities”.
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, tweeted: “I’d like to see Nigel Farage putting his life at risk to save others rather than being a rent-a-gob on TV, but I won’t hold my breath.
“It is not patriotic to want people fleeing war, persecution and violence to drown in the sea off the coast of Britain. In fact, it is fundamentally un-British, given we were integral to the drafting and signing of the UN Convention on Refugees.”
As part of its drive to inform the public of the importance of its humanitarian work, the RNLI released harrowing footage of a sea rescue. It also shared testimonies from volunteers detailing the desperate state that the people they encounter are in, as well as the “vile abuse” they sometimes encounter on the beach.
Dan O’Mahoney, the clandestine channel threat commander at the Home Office, said: “We are proud to work alongside RNLI crews. This unacceptable rise in dangerous small boat crossings is fuelled by serious organised criminals who profit from human misery and put lives at risk. That is why we must leave no stone unturned in our efforts to tackle these ruthless gangs, break up their criminal business model, and stop this cycle of illegal crossings to save lives.”