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A migrant support group has launched a legal challenge against Priti Patel’s plans to “push back” dinghies in the Channel, on the same day that dozens of asylum seekers drowned off the coast of France.
Channel Rescue, an organisation founded last year to ensure the safety of migrants, said it had brought the pre-trial action against the home secretary in the belief that the poilcy is “life-threatening, inhumane and unlawful”.
The group of volunteers is challenging the legality of her decision under British and international maritime law, which states that nobody can endanger other boats at sea.
In a 2017 briefing paper, Oxfam described a “pushback” as “the practice by authorities of preventing people from seeking protection on their territory by forcibly returning them to another country”.
It is thought the strategy would be used in limited circumstances by the UK to turn larger migrant boats back towards French waters. However, experts asserted earlier this year that the implementation of such tactics would put migrants’ lives at greater risk.
The move by Channel Rescue came as more than 30 asylum seekers, including five women and a young girl, died in the waters off Calais on Wednesday in what is thought to be the largest single loss of life on the route.
Leaders in France and the UK were among those to express their sadness at the tragedy, with Boris Johnson saying he was “shocked” and “appalled” by the deaths.
Ms Patel also tweeted that her thoughts were with the families of those affected by the accident.
However, she added her claim that the government’s new immigration plan “will overhaul our broken asylum system and address many of the long-standing pull factors encouraging migrants to make the perilous journey from France to the United Kingdom”.
The home secretary made this assurance despite the Home Office admitting two months ago that there was only “limited” evidence to suggest its new immigration plans would reduce Channel crossings.
The equality impact assessment for the Nationality and Borders Bill, which was published in September, also suggested the reforms carried “significant scope for indirect discrimination” and “potential for direct discrimination on the basis of race”.
As part of the planned changes to the UK’s asylum system, Ms Patel has referred to the new “pushback” policy several times in recent months, but the plan to turn back boats towards France has not yet been announced by the government.
In September, Channel Rescue said some of its volunteers had seen the UK Border Force training its staff to perform the tactic while riding jet skis.
Explaining its legal move to block the proposal, Kim Bryan, a Channel Rescue volunteer, said: “We believe this proposed policy is life-threatening, inhumane and unlawful.
“We have given the Home Office until 29 November to respond to our legal challenge. If we don’t receive a satisfactory response, we will issue judicial review proceedings.”
As well as changing the policy itself, the law firm Reed Smith LLP, acting on behalf of Channel Rescue, has asked the government to publish its “pushback” plan under the common law principle of transparency.
Michael Skrein, a litigation partner at the company, said: “We are very pleased to be helping Channel Rescue in its effort to bring before the court this highly controversial policy. There is a real need for transparency and judicial oversight in respect of what is proposed.”
In response, a Home Office spokesperson told The Independent: “To protect lives and break the business model of criminal gangs facilitating these crossings, it is right that we continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options to find ways of stopping small boats making this dangerous and unnecessary journey.”
Reacting to the dozens of deaths in the Channel on Wednesday, Channel Rescue said: “Our hearts go out to the friends and family of those who lost their lives today.
“These deaths, as with so many others, could have been prevented. The current approach is not working; our government needs to create a system to allow people to claim asylum safely.
“Pushback policies and the Nationality and Borders Bill will empower smugglers and make the situation worse for the small number of people who want to seek asylum in the UK.”
The latest deaths come after a sharp increase in Channel crossings this year. More than 25,700 people have made the dangerous journey to the UK so far in 2021, more than three times the number that did so in 2020.