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UK’s Unlawful Cruelty in the English Channel

Proposed Pushbacks Show Disregard for Life and Safety at Sea

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought into Dover, Kent, by Border Force officers on September 5, 2021. © 2021 Jonathan Brady/AP Images

The UK government’s reported plan to “turn around” boats of migrants and refugees in the English Channel is irresponsible, dangerous, and unlawful.

But talking about “turn-arounds” almost makes these tactics sound gentle. Pushbacks at sea would further endanger people already in a perilous situation, often in small, overcrowded boats in one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, including asylum seekers, like Afghans fleeing persecution under the Taliban.

French interior minister Gérald Darmanin rightly told his UK counterpart Priti Patel that “safeguarding human lives at sea takes priority over considerations of nationality, status, and migratory policy.” The responsibility to assist people in distress at sea is a humanitarian duty developed by maritime nations like the UK going back hundreds of years and is codified in international conventions to which the UK and France are parties.

Claims that pushbacks would happen only under “narrow circumstances” do not make this lawful nor acceptable. Any steps that create additional risk at sea should be avoided. Experience in the Mediterranean Sea shows that people are likely to panic during interceptions and start jumping overboard or crowding to one side of an unstable boat – all of which increases the risk of loss of life.

How is such a drastic policy even necessary? Around 12,000 people have crossed the Channel so far this year. While that number is up compared to last year, it is manageable for a country of the UK’s resources.

The UK’s proposal comes against the backdrop of the Afghanistan crisis and as the government is pushing immigration amendments that would criminalize people seeking asylum and allow for detaining them offshore while they wait out their asylum claim. The UN refugee agency and many civil society groups have strongly criticized these amendments. Pushbacks in the Channel would constitute collective expulsions prohibited under international law.

Endangering lives at sea and undermining centuries-old customs is hardly sound migration policy. If the UK wants to avoid Channel crossings, it should develop safe and legal means for migrants in France to travel to the UK to seek asylum and for family reunification and employment and educational opportunities. For its part, France should stop the harassment and abuse that contribute to the crossings. Both countries should choose migration policies that put rights first.

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