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Turning back migrant boats at sea ‘not solution’ to tackling Channel crossings

MPs and peers have warned the tactic could breach human rights laws.

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A group of people thought to be migrants are rescued off the coast of Folkestone, Kent by a Border Force vessel, as small boat incidents in the Channel continue. Picture date: Saturday November 20, 2021. (Gareth Fuller/PA)

A group of people thought to be migrants are rescued off the coast of Folkestone, Kent by a Border Force vessel, as small boat incidents in the Channel continue. Picture date: Saturday November 20, 2021. (Gareth Fuller/PA)

A group of people thought to be migrants are rescued off the coast of Folkestone, Kent by a Border Force vessel, as small boat incidents in the Channel continue. Picture date: Saturday November 20, 2021. (Gareth Fuller/PA)

The Government should scrap plans to turn back migrant boats at sea because they “endanger lives” and are likely to breach human rights laws, according to MPs and peers.

Pushbacks are “not the solution” to curbing Channel crossings and would “do the opposite of what is required to save lives”, the Joint Committee on Human Rights warned.

It described the proposed Nationality and Borders Bill as “littered” with measures which are “simply incompatible” with the UK’s international obligations.

Pushbacks are known to endanger lives at seaJoint Committee on Human Rights

Committee chairman Harriet Harman said: “The Government is determined to prevent these crossings, but pushbacks are not the solution. They will not deter crossings, the seas will become even more dangerous and the people smugglers will continue to evade punishment.

“Current failures in the immigration and asylum system cannot be remedied by harsher penalties and more dangerous enforcement action.

“The Bill is littered with measures that are simply incompatible with human rights law and the UK’s obligations under international treaties.

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Harriet Harman said the Bill is ‘littered’ with measures that are incompatible with the UK’s international obligations (Niall Carson/PA)

Harriet Harman said the Bill is ‘littered’ with measures that are incompatible with the UK’s international obligations (Niall Carson/PA)

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Harriet Harman said the Bill is ‘littered’ with measures that are incompatible with the UK’s international obligations (Niall Carson/PA)

“That is why we have called on the Government to amend the Bill by clearly setting out how any new measures can be carried out with respect to human rights law. Any measures that cannot meet these standards should be removed from the Bill completely.”

The legality and effectiveness of the tactic has been repeatedly called into question ever since it was first proposed, with campaigners threatening legal action against the Home Secretary.

But Priti Patel has insisted the plan has a “legal basis”, although the Home Office’s permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft previously conceded that only a “small proportion” of boats could be turned back.

The committee’s report said: “A policy of pushbacks would likely be incompatible with the UK’s obligations under international human rights law and maritime law.”

It added: “Pushbacks are known to endanger lives at sea. This is even more so when dealing with people on small, unseaworthy vessels, in a busy shipping lane, often with rough waters, without appropriate life-saving equipment, as is the case for migrants in small boats in the Channel.

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Home Secretary Priti Patel insists the plan has a legal basis (Victoria Jones/PA)

Home Secretary Priti Patel insists the plan has a legal basis (Victoria Jones/PA)

PA

Home Secretary Priti Patel insists the plan has a legal basis (Victoria Jones/PA)

“A policy of pushbacks fails to comply with the obligations to save those in distress, contrary to the right to life and international maritime law. Moreover, pushbacks would do the opposite of what is required to save lives.

“Pushbacks would create a situation where state actors were actively placing individuals in situations that would increase the risk to life. Under the current conditions, we cannot see how a policy of pushbacks can be implemented without risking lives, contrary to the UK’s obligations under the right to life and international maritime law.”

Plans to “criminalise” those arrive in the UK without a visa or through other approved immigration routes are “inconsistent” with the United Nations Refugee Convention, which “explicitly prohibits refugees being penalised for unauthorised entry”, the committee said, adding: “Given the limited options refugees have for entering the UK via legal routes the Government should reconsider these measures.”

The group of MPs and peers also called for reassurance that border officials will not be granted immunity from prosecution where criminal offences are committed leading to loss of life at sea.

A Home Office spokesman said: “As part of our ongoing operational response and to prevent further loss of life at sea, we continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options to find ways of stopping small boats making this dangerous and unnecessary journey.

“These all comply and are delivered in accordance with both domestic and international law.”

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