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UK Pushbacks are 'Morally Reprehensible'

The House of Lords Should Safeguard Life and Rights in the Channel

A damaged inflatable small boat is pictured on the shore in Calais, northern France, November 25, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Michel Spingler

Today, the House of Lords has the chance to take a stand against the UK government’s attempt to “legalize” pushbacks in the English Channel. The House will debate an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would ensure UK officials cannot take any action at sea inconsistent with the UK’s international legal obligations.

Last November, 27 people died trying to cross the English Channel, the worst tragedy to date in the crossing. Despite this shocking loss of life, the UK government is forging ahead with plans to legalize the use of dangerous boat pushbacks. Just a couple of weeks ago Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the military would take over operational command in the English Channel to prevent boat crossings. This comes as Border Force officers are refusing to carry out pushbacks, taking legal action against the Home Office through their union, and threatening to strike if forced to undertake such “morally reprehensible” actions.

The unworkability of the proposed pushback power in the Borders Bill is abundantly clear. The Armed Forces Minister reacted to the Prime Minister’s announcement by stating that Royal Navy mariners will not threaten the life of people by engaging in pushbacks, with naval vessels unable to safely engage in the practice.

Pushbacks are not only unlawful, they are ineffective. Pushbacks are inconsistent with the UK’s obligations under domestic and international law to protect the right to life and rescue persons in distress at sea. As Admiral Lord West, a Former First Sea Lord and signatory to the amendment before the Lords, has warned, pushbacks are not only impractical but “someone is likely to end up dead”.

Pushbacks will also not stop dangerous Channel crossings or end people smuggling; they will only compel individuals to take more dangerous and hidden routes and increase the demand for smugglers and risk of trafficking for already vulnerable people. The government’s own equality impact assessment of the bill recognizes this, as do the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and Joint Committee on Human Rights.

During today’s debate on the Nationality and Borders Bill, it is crucial that strong voices from across the political divide speak out unequivocally against pushbacks and for parliamentarians to support amendments that would end this unworkable and inhumane policy. The UK’s priority should be to save lives and provide more options for asylum seekers and migrants to travel safely to the UK.

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