(CN) — The United Kingdom government is under pressure to abandon controversial proposed new maritime tactics designed to "push-back" asylum seekers and migrants arriving on small boats in the English Channel, following the greatest loss of life in a single channel incident last week.
A total of 27 people from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan lost their lives in the cold waters separating England and France on Nov. 24, after a flimsy and overcrowded inflatable dinghy they had been traveling in capsized in choppy waters.
According to the International Organization for Migration, the tragedy increases the death toll in the channel this year to 35, and to 50 overall since crossings intensified in 2018.
The U.K. government has faced fresh criticism of their management of the crossings, and in particular their proposed "push-back" approach to the situation.
The Home Office, the government department with responsibility for border control and immigration, intends to introduce a policy whereby boats of refugees and migrants found by authorities in the channel are pushed back towards France to prevent them landing in the U.K. The Home Secretary Priti Patel argues that rescue attempts of those attempting crossings are encouraging more people to make the dangerous journey.
Patel, speaking in Parliament earlier this year, argued that "This plan marks a step change in our approach as we toughen our stance to deter illegal entry and the criminals that endanger life by enabling it. Many illegal arrivals have traveled through a safe country like France to get to the U.K., where they could and should have claimed asylum. We must act to reduce the pull factors of our system and disincentivize illegal entry."
"To those who say we lack compassion, I simply say that while people are dying, we must act to deter these journeys and if you don’t like our plan, where is your's?"
Scrutiny of the policy has increased as further details of the tragedy have emerged. Survivors of the disaster report being left abandoned by the authorities on both sides of the channel as people began to contract hypothermia.
Speaking to the Rudaw Media Network, 21-year-old Mohammed Shekha Ahmad from Iranian Kurdistan said: "We called the French police and asked them to help us. We sent our location to the French police, and they said, you are inside British water. So, we were inside the British water and called the British police for help, but they said call the French police."
Authorities are reported to have only intervened 12 hours later, after bodies were spotted by French fishing vessels.
The tragedy is the latest in a long-running standoff between British and French authorities, amid a huge increase in channel crossings in recent years and months. The British government argue that it is France's responsibility to stop the crossings as they begin on French soil. In turn, the French argue that constant surveillance of more than 250 miles of coastline is simply implausible. The British have offered to send police to help the French patrol their borders, which the French have rejected as a violation of their sovereignty.
Tensions over Brexit have intensified the political stalemate. The day after the disaster, the British Home Secretary was disinvited from a European summit seeking to address the issue, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson published an open letter to President Emmanuel Macron on Twitter, infuriating his French counterpart.
In a press conference, Macron said: "I am surprised by methods when they are not serious. We do not communicate from one leader to another on these issues by tweets and letters that we make public. We are not whistleblowers."
He is reported to have privately referred to Johnson as a "clown."