Legality, safety, and rationality of ‘pushing back’ migrant boats questioned by Lords committee

Migrants being rescued by an RNLI lifeboat
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The legality of Priti Patel’s plans to turn back migrant boats at sea has been called into question by peers including senior lawyers and a former judge.


The Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee has written to the home secretary expressing “concerns” over the legal basis for the so-called ‘pushbacks’. The letter adds to “growing concern both in and outside Parliament” over the policy proposed in a bid to curb Channel crossings, peers said.

It comes as the Nationality and Borders Bill is being considered by MPs in the Commons. It’s at report stage for a second day before it gets a third reading. Patel insisted the plan has a “legal basis” when questioned by the committee in October. That’s despite concerns being repeatedly raised over its legality and effectiveness which prompted campaigners to threaten her with legal action.

The Home Office’s permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft previously conceded that only a “small proportion” of boats could be turned back.

The committee’s Liberal Democrat chairwoman, former solicitor baroness Sally Hamwee, said:

Read on...

Statements, including from the Home Secretary, are that there is a legal basis for the policy of so-called ‘turnarounds’. We question that.

The so-called ‘turnaround’ policy would force fragile small boats crossing the Channel to turn back. It is hard to imagine a situation in which those in them would not be in increased danger or where captains would not be obliged to render assistance.

Instead, the Home Secretary has set a policy of forcing them to turn around. Even if there is a domestic legal basis, if it were actually implemented, it would almost certainly contravene the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Policing borders should be done in full accordance with the principles of national and international law, and we look forward to full engagement with our questions.

English Channel migrant deaths
A campaigner wearing a Priti Patel mask tears up an ‘I Welcome Refugees’ placard (Victoria Jones/PA)

“Not the solution”

Labour members baroness Shami Chakrabarti, a barrister and former director of human rights group Liberty, and ex-home secretary lord David Blunkett; Conservative member and solicitor baroness Fiona Shackleton, and retired Court of Appeal judge and crossbench peer baroness Heather Hallett also sit on the committee.

Its letter asks under what powers the tactics could be used as the law stands currently. The letter calls for a response from the Home Office by 5 January. The committee said it “fully” endorses a report published last week by another group of MPs and peers which found the tactic could endanger lives and is likely to breach human rights laws.

The turnaround tactics are “not the solution” and will “do the opposite of what is required to save lives”, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said.

It described the proposed Bill as “littered” with measures which are “simply incompatible” with the UK’s international obligations.

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  • Show Comments
    1. Many migrants from the southern hemisphere are fleeing from manmade-global-warming-caused chronic crop failures that are mostly caused by the northern hemisphere’s chronic fossil-fuel burning, which began with the Industrial Revolution. While some global refugee situations may not be climate-change related, many ocean- and land-based border-guard confrontations are nonetheless scary and, quite frankly, un-Christian. It’s as though they are considered disposable human life, their suffering somehow less-worthy.

      There is an erroneous impression that new (im)migrants typically become financial/resource burdens on their new home nation. Many are rightfully desperate human beings, perhaps enough so to work very hard for basic food and shelter. And I’ve found they do want to work and not be a societal burden. Such laborers work very hard and should be treated humanely, including timely access to Covid-19 vaccination and proper work-related protections, but often enough are not.

      Where I reside, I have noticed over decades the exceptionally strong work ethic practiced by migrants, especially in the produce harvesting sector. It’s typically back-busting work that almost all post-second-generation Westerners won’t tolerate for ourselves. (Every time I observe such workers toiling, I feel a bit guilty: considering it purely on a moral/human[e] level, I see not why they should have to toil so for minimal pay and not also I.)

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