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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
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UK ‘push-back’ policy under focus following English Channel disaster

The UK government faces increased scrutiny of its approach to migration and asylum following the tragic deaths of 27 people in the English Channel.

(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."


The tensions come at a time when politicians on both sides of the channel are seeking to harden their lines on illegal immigration. In the U.K., Conservative MPs insist that the channel crossings have become the biggest issue brought up by their constituents, with a recent poll showing that four out of five Conservative voters think the government is handling the situation poorly.

Equally, next year's French presidential election looks to pit Macron against a variety of right-wing and far-right candidates looking to make immigration the primary focus of the campaign. Blaming each other for the failure to halt channel crossings has therefore become a convenient option for politicians of the two nations, reducing the incentive for any kind of entente cordiale.

Prior to 2018, small boat crossings were relatively rare, with almost all attempts to enter the U.K. made by stowing away in lorries, ferries or trains. In 2016 the Calais Jungle, a refugee and migrant camp situated near the Port of Calais in France — only 21 miles from the English Port of Dover — was broken up by French authorities. Some estimates placed the population at the time of eviction as high as 10,000.

Since the demolition of the camp, French authorities have introduced a policy of "no fixation points," in which groups of migrants arriving along the northern coast are moved along in order to prevent the formation of another camp. Increased security measures around the Port of Calais have limited the number of stowaways, whilst the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has reduced the quantity of freight and transport between the two countries.

At the same time, the number of small boat crossings have increased dramatically. Almost 2,000 attempted to make the crossing in 2019, rising to over 8,000 in 2020. In 2021, the total has skyrocketed to more than 25,000.

Under U.K. rules, applications for asylum can only be made once applicants are on U.K. soil. This encourages asylum seekers to make desperate attempts to enter Britain, as they have no other means of having their cases heard. The U.K. is particularly attractive to refugees and migrants who speak English. Many, if not most, who make the crossings also have family connections in Britain.

Despite these factors, and the rapidly rising number of crossings taking place, the U.K. is far from a prime European destination for asylum seekers. Per capita, it is 17th in Europe for asylum applications received, almost half the average across the European Union. A backlog of applications has grown over recent years — exacerbated by the pandemic — with more than 80,000 asylum seekers awaiting news of their status indefinitely. Unlike in other European countries, asylum seekers are not permitted to work while their applications are processed.

The U.K. government's push-back plans face several hurdles, aside from public scrutiny. Three separate legal challenges to the policy have been initiated by charities and human rights organizations. One case argues that the policy breaches maritime law, which requires vessels to provide assistance to those in distress. Another contends that it breaches the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Home Secretary has been advised that she is likely to lose legal challenges to the policy.

The government has already been forced to row back on plans to make it a criminal offense to "facilitate the entry of asylum seekers," which could have placed members of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) under threat of criminal prosecution. It has since announced that rescuers will be exempt from the new law.

More controversy awaits, as broader government plans to change asylum laws enter a critical stage in Parliament. The new laws would make it harder for asylum seekers who have traveled through a third country or entered the U.K. illegally to claim asylum, as well as introduce potential criminal penalties. The UN’s refugee agency said the plans would “penalize most refugees seeking asylum in the country via damaging and unjustified penalties” and be in violation of international law.

Conservative MPs have urged the government to break international law, and also sought to use the opportunity to push for abolition of the U.K.’s cornerstone Human Rights Act — a long held ambition of conservatives.

It remains unclear whether the proposals will deter those desperate to find safe passage, as the government claims. Amnesty International contends that “people seeking asylum need to do so, and if their needs were not so great they would not make these dangerous journeys.”

While the political debates roll on, and the international stalemate deepens, the numbers of people attempting to cross the channel in increasingly cold waters continue to rise.

Categories / International, Politics

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