• Europe Must Act

Breaking Convention - Border Force endangering lives at sea

by Helen Barber


A second suspected asylum seeker has been found drowned in the Channel in two months. This tragedy follows the death of a 27-year-old Eritrean man, who lost his life last month whilst trying to make the crossing in a raft which sank off the coast of Dunkirk.


The tragic death comes as legal experts have questioned the legality of the Government’s new controversial ‘pushback’ strategy to start turning away the boats of asylum seekers mid-Channel, to prevent them from reaching the UK.


Last Friday (10/09), the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, obtained legal advice to allow Border Force to start redirecting vessels away from UK waters back towards the continent, where the French authorities will have to return them back to shore. [The Telegraph, 10 September 2021]


The new tactics are said to have the backing of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.


The union representing Border Force staff has stated that their workers could be ‘breaking the law’ unless people seeking asylum ‘agree to be turned around’. The Guardian has reported that Border Force is being trained on these ‘turn-around’ tactics at sea, to be applied “when it is safe to do so”; however, France has warned that the plan could endanger lives.


Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, David Hammond, a former Royal Navy barrister and ex-Royal Marine, cautioned that Border Force employees may probably be legally pursued by the families of any people seeking sanctuary who lost their lives in British waters throughout pushback operations.


Mr Hammond, who is now the CEO of the charity Human Rights At Sea, said: “As quickly as a number of of these migrants panic or suppose it will likely be faster to get on board the vessel by stepping into the water, then push again instantly stops and you’ve got the requirement to save lots of life at sea below not less than three worldwide conventions.”

The human rights group, Channel Rescue, who carry out patrols along the coast, said they witnessed jet skis trying to thwart inflatable boats full of people last Monday (15/09).


After asserting that people were sitting on a dinghy’s tubing, simulating how boats are filled with people seeking sanctuary during the dangerous Channel crossings, the charity claimed to have seen a jet ski subsequently hit the rear of the dinghy and turn it around.

This suspected effort to forestall the dinghies comes only days after the home secretary reportedly authorised officials to rewrite maritime laws to give the Border Force the power to intercept boats as they cross UK waters - despite the tactics being rejected by the French government on the grounds that it could endanger lives.


According to the Metro, the Home Office, when contacted, did not deny that these tactics were ‘pushback drills’.


The practice has already been condemned by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants as ‘hugely dangerous’, calling for safe routes to be implemented to end perilous crossings rather than ‘violent pushbacks’.

In addition, Channel Rescue have also specified why these pushback tactics are ‘cruel, inhumane and illegal’.

In a separate Twitter thread, the group said:


“As soon as someone reaches an EU member state they’re entitled to apply for asylum."


“Pushbacks are a breach of Convention Relating to Status of Refugees and Euro Convention on Human Rights."


“They undermine people’s right to due process before a decision to expel them is taken.”


Metro: UK ‘practice turning around migrant dinghies with jet skis’


It is worrying that, during the pandemic, EU member states have been using illegal operations to push back at least 40,000 asylum seekers from Europe’s borders, and such pushback tactics have resulted in the deaths of more than 2,000 asylum seekers, the Guardian has revealed.


MENA Research Center: Revealed: 2,000 refugee deaths linked to illegal EU pushbacks


In the past month, there have been fears circulating that Priti Patel is planning to replicate the use of asylum centres in Greece following her visit to Samos to reportedly learn more about the methods used to intercept small boat crossings.


Earlier last month, the home secretary arrived in Greece to meet with the country’s migration minister Notis Mitarachi where she visited the controversial newly built reception centres, prompting concern from human rights groups that she is planning on introducing approaches modelled on these structures in the UK.


A press release from the home secretary in a press launch sent out by the Greek authorities stated: “We discussed a range of common challenges we face. We also talked about our strong cooperation. That is, how we can work together, support each other in some of these great challenges.”


These new camps have been widely criticised by campaigners as inhumane, having been described as “prison-like”.


News Chant: Priti Patel visits ‘inhumane’ Greek asylum reception centre


Commenting on news of the home secretary’s visit to examine the tactics used on the Aegean islands, Amnesty International refugee and migrant rights director Steve Valdez-Symonds said: “Sadly, the Home Secretary is already deeply committed to doing all that she can to avoid any of the responsibility she appears to expect other countries should take and so, like Greece, disdaining the rights and needs of people seeking asylum.


“The outcome is almost certain to be the same as in Greece — countless lives lost or damaged, a booming trade in exploitation of people and administrative dysfunction and chaos.”


Morning Star: Human rights groups alarmed by Home Secretary’s visit to new asylum centre in Greece


We at UK Must Act challenge this new government strategy, designed to stem the flow of migrant crossings, as a fundamental attack on the right to asylum. We once more call for the government to scrap the inhumane Nationality and Borders Bill, which will inherently criminalise people seeking asylum. We maintain that it is only by the provision of safe and legal routes that more unnecessary deaths of people attempting to make the perilous crossing can be prevented.


We once more maintain that the violent and inhumane approaches to accommodating vulnerable people fleeing persecution, such as the use of ‘closed’ reception centres built on the Aegean islands, MUST NOT be replicated in the UK.


We back opposition from Human Rights At Sea (HRAS), which is calling for urgent review of this strategy to place vulnerable people in situations where there is a real possibility that the use of these pushback operations will put their lives at risk.


~What can I do?


Read & share Amnesty International’s press release below, which explains why the government’s plan to push back refugees to France is ‘senseless’.


Click the press release to watch and read about the BBC interview with HRAS on the use of these tactics to be used in limited circumstances by Border Force vessels.


#EuropeMustAct #UKMustAct #WithRefugees #SafeRoutesNow


PHOTO CREDITS: Pixabay