UK makes plans to send migrant boats back to France
British home secretary Priti Patel: met with French interior minister Gérald Darmanin on Wednesday. Photograph: Ian West/PA Wire
The UK home secretary Priti Patel is exploring plans to use controversial pushback tactics to turn away migrant boats attempting to enter the UK via the English Channel.
Under proposals being discussed, Border Force officials could in some circumstances redirect migrants’ boats travelling across the channel back to French waters – a process described in international law as “refoulement”.
The home office on Thursday said it did not routinely comment on operational activity. The reports first emerged in The Times overnight. But an official made it clear the department continued to evaluate new options to prevent crossings.
A reduction in the numbers of people arriving in the UK in small boats has been a political priority for the home secretary. There have been about 13,500 arrivals in the UK via small boats so far this year – well above the 8,420 total for the whole of 2020.
Some have voiced scepticism at the latest plans. Lucy Moreton, professional officer of the ISU union, which represents Border Force officers, told the BBC’s Today programme that it was unlikely authority to turn vessels round would ever be used because of the dangers involved and the lack of French co-operation.
“In practical terms, if this happened even once I’d be surprised,” she said. Moreton pointed out that, under international maritime law, UK officials would need a French boat to receive any boat turned around.
Channel Rescue, a humanitarian charity, warned that the proposals would be a “direct contravention” of international maritime law.
“International maritime law stipulates that ships have a clear duty to assist those in distress, people at risk of losing their lives at sea must be rescued,” the organisation said. “The authorisation of pushbacks means the lives of thousands of innocent children, women and men have been put at greater risk.”
Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds described the plan as “dangerous”, adding that it would put lives at risk.
“The home secretary has failed to tackle the vile criminal gangs who are profiting from people smuggling and this should be her focus, along with securing an effective deal with France and safe and legal routes,” he said.
On Wednesday, Ms Patel met with French interior minister Gérald Darmanin.
“The home secretary made clear that delivering results and stopping crossings were an absolute priority for the British people, and that tackling the scourge of illegal migration and organised criminal networks is a joint challenge that neither country can tackle alone,” the home office said in a statement after the meeting.
In a letter released by the French after the meeting with Ms Patel on Wednesday but dated September 6th, Mr Darmanin outlined his concerns with a series of initiatives proposed by the UK government aimed at combating cross-channel clandestine migration.
Mr Darmanin rejected proposals for a joint Franco-British command centre to deal with the problem; described plans for a joint intelligence unit on smuggling gangs as “premature”; and rejected the possibility of a bilateral deal on migrant returns.
The minister also criticised suggestions that the UK might try to push back migrant boats, warning that any such action would harm relations between the two countries. “The use of maritime refoulements to French territorial waters would risk having a negative impact on our co-operation,” he wrote.
The letter marked a setback for Ms Patel’s efforts to press France into taking new action to prevent clandestine crossings, after several reports on Tuesday indicated she would use a meeting with Mr Darmanin on Wednesday to threaten to withhold £54 million (€63 million) that the UK in July agreed to pay France to step up its patrols of its coast.
The pair met after a meeting of G7 interior ministers in London as part of the UK’s chairing of the group of leading industrialised economies.
Mr Darmanin insisted in his letter that co-ordination between the two sides was already effective. “It does not require new structures to be created, as you propose, through a single, joint command centre for the forces,” he wrote.
The minister also argued that France faced unprecedented pressure from clandestine migration from other parts of Europe and had to limit diversion of resources to the channel coast to the numbers previously agreed.
“The mobilisation of our forces at our southern borders, as well as at the EU’s borders through the Frontex Agency, must not weaken, when we know the risks of migratory movements which the crises in Afghanistan and Belarus are likely to generate,” Mr Darmanin wrote.
It was estimated more than 1,000 people crossed the English Channel in small boats on Monday – a record for the recent spike in small-boat migration. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021