Turned Away: UK approves plans allowing border authorities to turn back migrant boats

September 30, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

The UK government has approved proposals to turn away boats crossing the Channel that illegally harbour migrants that wish to enter the country.

What does this mean?

The newly approved proposals allow the UK Border Force to turn away migrant boats when they “deem it safe” to do so. UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, will have the power to personally approve the deployment of this tactic in the government’s attempt to tackle the so-called migrant crisis. Mrs Patel had previously met with the French interior minister, GĂ©rald Darmanian, who warned that France would not “accept any practice contrary to the law of the sea”.  Mrs Patel also indicated that the UK would withhold ÂŁ54m in funding if France failed to comply and respect the proposals. Mr Darmanian referred to this as “financial blackmail”, criticising the move as “dangerous” and that “safeguarding human lives…takes priority over nationality, status and migratory policy”. Nonetheless, the UK’s acting attorney general, Michael Ellis, is said to be drawing up a legal basis that justifies the deployment of the new strategy.

What's the big picture effect?

With 12,600 migrants crossing the Channel on over 560 boats so far this year, it is no wonder that the UK government is now trying to take action. A rallying cry has now built up among Brexit-supporting groups, especially the Conservative Party, as a change in immigration policy became a central issue of the 2016 Brexit referendum. UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is “exploring a range of safe and legal options” according to a government spokesman. 

The international legal infrastructure for such issues was established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982). Such international law makes it clear that “every state” has an international obligation to “render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost”. The relevant authorities must then proceed with speed to rescue the persons in distress. However, once a rescue has been effected, the law is unclear on what should happen next, hence why the UK government is pursuing a drastic change in its policy. The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tried to clarify this point, claiming that the “definition of rescue implies disembarkation” onto land. However, as this clarification is not referred to under current international law, the UK continues to take its chances in the hopes of making a case for legally turning away migrant boats so long as migrants’ safety can be guaranteed. 

Nonetheless, this has not stopped human rights groups from raising concerns over what are being described as “pushback” tactics against migrants. Many of these groups claim that this new policy is in violation of Article 14 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights which states that everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. Amnesty International said that such migrants “only make dangerous journeys…because there are no safe alternatives available”. Moreover, the head of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, has urged the UK government “to rethink its brutal policy”. Meanwhile, Lucy Moreton from the Immigration Services Union said it would be surprising if the new tactics are used at all, calling the policy “dead in the water”. To carry out this new policy, Border Force will be required to get the consent of Priti Patel and the French government, something the French government is unlikely to engage with. Therefore, the UK likely has a way to go in solidifying a workable legal justification for an asylum policy that does not further endanger migrants’ lives. As it stands, the proposals are likely to have a hard time being accepted by the international community, with their practicality even more questionable.

Report written by Dan Furniss

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