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Examining the truth behind Daily Mail’s reports of terrorists crossing the Channel in small boats

On 20th November, The Daily Mail ran a story whose headline began: “Manhunt underway after suspected terror cell cross the Channel to the UK…”

That article, rewording an exclusive front page Sunday Express report, explained how suspected terrorists with links to Islamist groups had vanished after crossing the Channel in small boats.The aim was clearly to fuel concerns about national security and border vulnerabilities.

It was not a new tale. In April, The Daily Mail had also run this story: “Nineteen suspected terrorists.. (crossed)… the Channel from France on small boats.” That time, the paper claimed almost twenty suspected terrorists had arrived in the UK illegally, and were now under surveillance. They could not be deported, the paper reported, owing to human rights laws.

Why not arrest them, you might ask?

“The suspects cannot be arrested and remanded in jail,” The Daily Mail explained, “because there is no prospect of them being charged or prosecuted, based on available evidence.”

In other words, there was no hard evidence they were terrorists in the first place.

Such stories are the bread and butter of The Daily Mail. Security fears are raised, they said in October, after “a group of unidentified men (arrived) on a South Coast beach next to a nuclear power station.” The insinuation was clear: nuclear – jihadists – armageddon.

It’s been this way for a while. In 2015, they were running stories such as “”Med boats’ secret cargo – jihadis bound for Britain.” The trouble with these stories, though, is that they are all based on some murky intelligence source that isn’t cited, are never linked to actual arrests or detentions, and – when examined months later – the terror threat declared at the time never actually came to pass.

Of course, there are reports about harm occasionally caused by small boat migrants.  There was the arrest of a recent migrant in Skegness following a violent rape in June. The accused, Saad Gomaa, has denied the charges. And in March, The Times reported on an Afghan migrant in a French camp who was hoping to board a small boat to England but had already been deported from the UK after raping a 12-year-old girl. Emal Kochai was found guilty of raping the child in 2014 in Reading, Berkshire.

These are undeniably strong and important news stories. But the overriding criminal charges are not – in policing terms – amongst asylum seekers, but at the ‘smugglers’ who facilitate their passage. This is because all arrivals in small boats are considered illegal, and those who orchestrate these arrivals are guilty of trafficking.

Of course, most of these ‘the-terrorists-are-coming’ reports have to be taken with a pinch of salt. It fits into the old ‘Barbarians at the gates’ trope and is a crude ruse to stir up political outrage and populist anger. But such poor reporting endangers the entire body politic. Fake or exaggerated news only serves to diminish democracy – with the very real fact that these toxic reports of foreign men swarming into the UK seeking to kill British citizens, serve only to inflame hate, racism and fear. Something that was on full right-wing display at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day.

In reality, when you ask “how true is this claim of smuggled terrorists?”, you are either met with a lack of governmental information or a realisation that what The Daily Mail’s ‘single source’ says does not correspond with what is actually happening.

For instance, when I asked the Home Office under Freedom of Information to give details to their claim that, in 2020, they had disrupted 430 organised crime groups and had significant seizures of cash and assets from organised crime groups, the Home Office said it would cost too much to share such information.

And when, in 2018, knowing it was untrue, I complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) that The Daily Mail had wrongly reported that an Iraqi man – someone who had won compensation from the British government – was an insurgent who had been found with a bomb, I won. The Daily Mail had to publish a front-page correction and internally issued disciplinary notes to senior staff.

The reality, instead, is that many of those seeking to come to the UK on small boats have strong cases for asylum here. When I was in Calais two months ago, I met an Afghan who had worked with the Coalition Military there and whose brother had been killed by the Taliban. His documents seemed far more convincing than any of The Daily Mail’s contrarian evidence.

The UK government itself reports that, of those small boat arrivals who had received an initial decision on their asylum status since 2018, some 65% were granted refugee status or another type of leave. Furthermore, when you look at the countries where most of these asylum seekers are coming from, of the top three, two are from countries where the Salafist-Jihadist threat is low (Iran and India).

Overall, The Daily Mail articles that claim small boat migrants are terrorists risk crying wolf. None of the suicide bombers in Western Europe in recent years have arrived this way.

What it does do is to create divisions, demonise legitimate asylum seekers and lower both public debate and our capacity for empathy. The implicit notion is that these small boats are filled with barbarians seeking to destroy Britain. But – we have to ask – is the real harm to this country from them or from the hate being sown by some papers with their lurid claims and lies?