Are Priti Patel’s plans to send migrant boats back to France lawful?

'The Government’s push back plan is senseless, dangerous and almost certainly unlawful.'

Priti Patel

A charity boss has hit back at Priti Patel’s controversial policy to turn boats full of migrants around while they cross the channel, saying it is “at odds with the legal duty of rescue at sea.” 

The Home Office provoked huge amounts of criticism this week over plans to force migrants trying to reach the UK by boat back into French waters.

Critics have said that such actions will break the UN Conventions of the Law at Sea, as well as the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

But the Home Office denies this, saying that all operational procedures used at sea comply and are delivered in accordance with domestic and international law.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Director, said: “The Government’s push back plan is senseless, dangerous and almost certainly unlawful.

“Intercepting vessels in the Channel is incredibly high-risk and to push people back will endanger their lives which is totally at odds with the legal duty of rescue at sea. 

“People have every right to seek asylum in the UK, and they only make dangerous journeys and rely on smugglers because there are no safe alternatives made available to them.”

International maritime law states that every state is required to “render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost” and then “proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress”.

But there is some debate over the definition of a rescue.

The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said that the definition of rescue implies disembarkation on land, but this is not defined in the law.

This means as long as the safety of the people on board can be guaranteed, it may be legal to turn them around.

But the vast majority of migrant boats crossing the English Channel are small dinghies that are overloaded, meaning the passengers’ safety is unlikely to be guaranteed.

The proposed “pushbacks” could also be a breach of Article 14 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution.

The Home Office has recommended that people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach and not risk their lives making these dangerous crossings from a safe EU country.

The New Plan for Immigration will change the law so those who facilitate these dangerous crossings will face a maximum of life imprisonment.

Valdez-Symonds said: “Those with family or other clear connections to this country currently have no means of exercising their legal right to seek asylum in the UK without relying on frightening journeys like these.

“Coming on top of draconian plans to criminalise refugees arriving in the UK, this ​is a government playing politics with people’s lives in the Channel. It is cruel and destined to fail.

“The Home Secretary should end this ​falsely ‘tough’ posturing and enter into meaningful talks with her French counterparts over properly sharing refugee responsibility with France, a country which receives three times as many people seeking asylum as the UK.”

The French Interior Minister also implied that the plans were unlawful, in a tweet on Thursday. 

He said: “France will not accept any practices that go against maritime laws, nor any financial blackmail.

“The UK must keep to their commitments, which I said clearly to my counterpart Priti Patel.

“The friendship between our two countries deserves better than these actions that harm the cooperation of our services.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are seeing an unacceptable rise in dangerous and unnecessary small boat crossings, that’s why we continue to explore all options available to bring these numbers down.

“Our primary focus is on preventing people from entering the Channel, tackling the criminal gangs responsible and protecting lives. 

“As part of our ongoing operational response, we continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options for stopping small boats.

“All operational procedures used at sea comply and are delivered in accordance with domestic and international law.

“We will fix the broken asylum system through our New Plan for Immigration, break the business model of people smugglers who put lives at risk and welcome people through safe and legal routes and as agreed at G7 we continue to cooperate with our international partners.”

Alexandra Warren is a freelance journalist.

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