By Clare Moseley
“Operation Red Meat” – the initiative to appease Conservative voters disillusioned by Partygate scandals – reaffirmed the government’s commitment to using ‘pushback’ tactics to force refugees in flimsy boats to go back to France.
“Routes have been tested, technology is being used, [and] the way in which boats can be pushed back has also been well tested,” Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, confidently announced to Parliament in January. “And that is our policy.”
Last September Home Office officials had first announced the policy in a statement to media and journalists. Border Force officers had been seen rehearsing tactics on jet skis in the Channel, and Johnson recently added more drama by announcing that the Royal Navy will be brought in – although Naval sources quoted in the media have expressed uncertainty about the idea.
So far as we know, no pushbacks have yet taken place in the Channel, but you can see why this government likes to talk them up. “Just send-’em-back” plays better than any other policy to core Conservative voters in the marginals, and it offers a simple take on a complex situation.
In reality, however, pushbacks are a terrible idea, for many different reasons.
Firstly, they’re life-threateningly dangerous. Pushbacks have caused fatalities off the coasts of countries such as Greece and Libya and, given how overcrowded, flimsy and unstable the Channel refugee’s boats are, experts say that any attempt to approach them will threaten lives.
But they also represent a more existential threat. A guiding principle of maritime law is that protection of human life at sea must be paramount. Once you remove that basic principle, you open up a Pandora’s box to danger and risk. You need only watch the videos of violent pushbacks in the Mediterranean, where Libyan coastguards have watched people drown and Greek officials have shot at them with guns, to see what that can mean in practice.
Secondly, largely because of this danger, they’re probably illegal. They go against the spirit and letter of not only maritime law, but also human rights law, where a fundamental principle is the right to life. They also run counter to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, to which the UK is signed up, which protects the right to claim asylum and prohibits a state making collective expulsions of refugees.
This likely unlawfulness is why Care4Calais is working to get the policy withdrawn, by taking the government to court. Together with the PCS Union, which represents Border Force officers, we’re aiming to show the pushback policy contravenes the law, and that its details should be more transparent.
We’re also applying for an injunction to halt use of the policy until its lawfulness can be determined. Our application for interim relief – to ensure the Home Office cannot use the policy before the full trial is settled – will be heard shortly.
We are convinced that the court will declare the policy unlawful – and that this will ultimately save lives. But it will also save the UK a great deal of time and money, too. And that’s the third reason Channel pushbacks are a bad idea – because they won’t achieve what the government wants anyway.
For a start they’d have to get the policy implemented, which is a problem because Border Force doesn’t want to do it and, operationally, the Navy can’t either. Moreover, it would also require some cooperation from the French authorities who have already indicated that this won’t be forthcoming. How can we force people to return to France if France refuses to take them?
Even if those problems could be fixed – and they won’t be – the basic idea that pushbacks will deter refugees from trying to cross is unfounded. The UK has been using policies based on deterrence for more than ten years and none of them have ever worked. The simple reason is that what refugees are fleeing from – death, torture, persecution – is worse than any deterrent this Government can put in place. Once they reach a point where they are so desperate as to risk their lives in a flimsy dinghy, what difference is a bit more risk?
What the policy would do is make refugees take longer and more dangerous routes to escape interception, and this means that people smugglers will be able to charge more money. More money for smugglers and more risk for refugees are all that will be achieved.
What would work is to create a safe alternative way for refugees to claim asylum in the UK without the need to risk their lives. They are coming anyway, so let’s make it via a safe and controlled means.
We could for example make initial screenings in France to see if someone was likely to have a viable claim and, if they did, transfer them safely to the UK to have their claim fairly heard. This would not only save lives: it would put people smugglers out of business as the government says it wants.
Would the people refused not still try to use an illegal route? The facts suggest not, as 98 percent of people who cross the Channel on small boats submit an asylum claim on arrival. They make the crossing in search of a better life, safety and security. Without that possibility, it is unlikely they would take the risk.
The bigger question might be why the UK government doesn’t consider this obvious, civilised option. After all, we take in fewer refugees than many of our European neighbours, and people in the UK are no less compassionate than citizens of other countries: we do care about the terrible plight of refugees. In 2020, we welcomed 65,000 people from Hong Kong without issue. Another 30,000 refugees will not make our island sink.
The question is why exactly, when the UK already takes so few refugees, is our government apparently so determined that we take none at all? Those of us who watched aghast as Patel shamelessly used the military threat as part of the “red meat” campaign may draw their own conclusions.
It is just over two months since 27 refugees – men, women and children – drowned in the English Channel when their dinghy deflated. The British public were appalled and saddened by that tragedy, and yet the government persists with a policy that would almost certainly lead to more deaths.
As an organisation, Care4Calais’ key focus is to help asylum seekers on both sides of the Channel; to provide aid to those living in destitution in Northern France and Belgium and to help refugees rebuild their lives in the UK. The vast majority of the men, women and children we support have made the Channel crossing. We know very well the fear and desperation they feel getting on dinghies in Calais, risking everything in the hope of finding safety in the UK.
We do not want to see any more people dying on our border, but we fear this will be inevitable should pushback tactics be used. That’s why we cannot sit idly by to see Priti Patel make Channel crossings even more dangerous – and we are convinced that when compassionate people hear the reality of the small boat crossings, they will support us.
Clare Moseley is the founder of Care4Calais. More information here
Image: Migrants in the English Channel. Creator: Sandor Csudai. Copyright: Sandor Csudai. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
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