Critics have said it is “disgraceful” that ministers have refused to rule out using the so-called “pushback” tactic after the deaths of dozens of migrants attempting to cross the Channel.
Immigration minister Kevin Foster appeared to keep the door open to deploying the move, which would see migrant boats told to turn back at sea before reaching Britain as long as UK Border Force patrol commanders deem it safe to do so.
The comments came after the deadliest day of the migrant crisis, with at least 27 people dying when a dinghy capsized off the coast of Calais.
Put to Mr Foster that the “pushback” policy had become “a power you would never use” following the tragedy, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What we’ve said is that any maritime tactics would be deployed appropriately, bearing in mind the safety situation, and that would be determined by commanders on the ground.”
The Home Office minister added that the UK Government wanted to see “what we can do in French waters before people get to the middle of the Channel, because that isn’t a great place for people to be”.
The Liberal Democrats described the tactic as “cruel” and called for the Home Secretary to pledge never to use it.
The party’s home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael said: “It is disgraceful that the Government is even considering pushing boats back in the Channel after yesterday’s tragic news.
“Priti Patel must immediately rule out these dangerous and cruel pushback tactics which don’t work and could cause yet more unnecessary deaths.
“The Government’s incompetence and failure to get to grips with this crisis has led us to the heartbreaking situation we find ourselves in.
“Instead of yet more unworkable gimmicks, ministers must now focus on providing safe and legal routes to take refugees out of the grip of smugglers and traffickers.”
So-called “pushbacks” of small boats in the Channel are very difficult and there is heated debate over their legality.
Charities fear that seeking to turn boats away on the water could put lives at risk.
The Home Office has not confirmed when or if the tactic will be put into practice.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “There are a number of operational capabilities that Border Force have.
“As I’ve said on a number of occasions, I wouldn’t get into those operational tactics.”