Our work in the English Channel

Helping you talk about our humanitarian work with confidence. 

RNLI lifeboat in Dover

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

At times, the RNLI receives media attention about our lifesaving work in the English Channel. This can lead to conversations on social media and with members of the public about the RNLI’s role in these rescues.

The information in this article will help RNLI volunteers and staff better understand what our involvement and responsibilities are to help you talk about our humanitarian work with confidence.

Below you can find out more about the RNLI’s position, download some FAQs to help you respond to queries from members of the public, and find contact details for our Press Office Team.  

Our position

We are incredibly proud of the humanitarian work our volunteer lifeboat crews do to rescue vulnerable people in distress. 

HM Coastguard and the Irish Coast Guard can request any of our lifeboats to launch to an incident. Our lifeboats operate under international maritime law, which states we are permitted and indeed obligated to enter the waters of other territories for search and rescue purposes. Where we believe there is a risk to life at sea, we will always launch. 

We are not border control and, once a rescue is complete, we hand over responsibility for casualties to UK Border Force and/or the ambulance service or police.

Our charity exists to save lives at sea. Our mission is to save every one. Our lifesavers are compelled go to those in need without judgement of how they came to be in the water: they have done so since the RNLI was founded in 1824 and this will always be our ethos. 

Our response remains humanitarian

Anyone can drown, but no one should. The RNLI will always help those in trouble in the water without judgement – knowing that someone is in trouble and needs to be rescued has always been enough. We respond to distress at sea in these circumstances in the same way as we do for any other search and rescue situation. 

The RNLI is not expected to be part of wider immigration or border protection policies. That is the responsibility of government. Questions about border controls, immigration and the legality of right to remain are questions for our respective governments – they are not matters for the RNLI.

This stance has been agreed with government agencies in the UK and Ireland. Guidance has been established for these types of rescues with all RNLI lifeboat stations, where we are only tasked to attend if people are in distress and casualties need our help or specialist rescue skills.

It is sometimes difficult to establish whether there is distress involved. This means that RNLI crews are sometimes tasked to situations which may be more appropriate for other agencies to attend, but we are working with HM Coastguard and the Irish Coast Guard to ensure that RNLI crews are only tasked for incidents where we are needed. 

Supporting our people

The welfare of our people is a top priority, and we work closely with station management to ensure crew members are able to respond to incidents. Support is available for operational volunteers and staff who are dealing with these particularly challenging call outs. 

This help includes a targeted approach to dealing with the results of trauma – TRiM (Trauma Risk Management), our peer support system, is designed to assist volunteers and staff who have been exposed to a potentially traumatic event. TRiM practitioners are non-medical personnel who are specifically trained to understand the effects that traumatic events have on people. You can find out more about how to access this support by logging into Horizon or by speaking to your RNLI manager. 

Welfare support

Your RNLI manager is here to support you, so please get in touch with them if you have any questions or need more information. 

If the situation in the English Channel is having an impact on your mental health, please reach out to someone for support. It’s important that we continue to look out for each other as one crew.

You can find a number of options available for you to use in the wellbeing section of the Volunteer Zone, including:

  • Samaritans
  • Mental Health First Aiders
  • Support 24/7 
  • the RNLI’s Welfare Adviser.

Talking confidently with the public

Many of our supporters, your friends and family members will have seen some form of media coverage or social media discussion about English Channel crossings, sometimes including references to the RNLI’s involvement.

During times of increased media activity, we understand that members of the public might want to ask questions of RNLI volunteers or staff members. These questions can sometimes be challenging, so to ensure you have the latest facts and messages, you can find an FAQ below: 

Download the FAQ (PDF 134 KB)

Your safety always comes first. If you don’t feel safe or comfortable having a conversation on this subject, please do not feel you have to.

Contact the RNLI Press Office

If you receive any enquiry from a journalist or media outlet, please refer them directly to the RNLI Press Office: 

You can also get in touch with the Press Office Team if you need any help or support in talking about our work – we’re always open, 24/7.  

Social media

The RNLI encourages the responsible use of social media to help the public learn about our lifesaving work. 

It is important to remember that if you post something on social media, even to a private group of friends or in a WhatsApp group – social media is never private. 

As one crew, we can support volunteers who are carrying out these challenging rescues by thinking carefully about what we post online. It is frustrating to read inaccurate or inflammatory reports about the RNLI, and it can be upsetting to see people indicating they will withdraw their support for our charity – but it’s important that we do not escalate conversations that are not constructive or helpful.  

If you see something of concern on social media, please let the RNLI Press Office Team know so we can monitor the conversation and, if appropriate, respond in the right way to help educate the public about our role in these rescues. 

If you use social media as part of your role at the RNLI, please ensure that you follow the RNLI’s policy and do not post anything from the scene of an active rescue.  

Summary 

We are immensely proud of the work of RNLI crews and teams in saving lives at sea without judgement, even in some of the most challenging and difficult circumstances. And our work involving rescues in the English Channel is no different. 

Thank you for carrying out your roles with professionalism and pride. Your selflessness, dedication and courage truly represent the values of the RNLI and we are incredibly proud of everything you are doing to prevent the loss of life at sea in the UK and Ireland.  

We are the charity that saves live at sea and this is our watch. Nothing will change that, and we will launch to those in distress in the water – no matter who they are or where they come from.