Return of migrant boats risks breaking international law

In April 2021, we wrote about the Home Secretary’s plans to end the “dangerous” crossing of the Canal by immigrants traveling from France to the UK. We have made it clear that doing so runs the risk of violating international law by refusing to allow the passage of people who have the right to seek asylum here. Since March, things have escalated after several thousand migrants arrived in small boats from France in recent weeks.

According to the latest statistics, more than 13,500 immigrants have made the trip in 2021 so far, including 1,000 immigrants in just two days. In this article, we will look at the recent controversy over the proposal to return ships crossing the English Channel with migrants who wish to apply for asylum in the UK.

What is Home Secretary Priti Patel proposing?

Priti Patel made clear in her Citizenship and Borders Bill announcement that she wants to see changes to stop the passage of asylum seekers, in large part to stop the activities of illegal human traffickers. “People who come from France and Germany and from safe countries around the world who then cross the Channel in small boats … will not be able to seek asylum in the UK in the way they have for so long,” he said. she. she said she.

On September 9, 2021, it was announced that Patel intended to return any small boats carrying migrants arriving in UK waters. The media reported that British Border Force personnel are being trained in how to use “turn” tactics at sea.

In response, the French government rejected the idea, rightly claiming that such actions would endanger the lives of vulnerable people. According to French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, they will not accept circumvention on the grounds that “the protection of human life at sea takes precedence over considerations of nationality, status and immigration policy.” He also said that using such an approach “would run the risk of negatively affecting our cooperation.”

Changing tack would not only endanger the lives of the men, women and children trying to reach the UK, it could also constitute a flagrant violation of international law.

Risk of breaching international law by returning migrant vessels

Forcing small ships laden with vulnerable migrants to return to the canal would be a violation of international maritime law. Border Force officers operating in British waters are subject to the international laws of the United Kingdom and the United Nations. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that ships have a clear obligation to help people in distress. According to article 98 (1):

“Every State shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, to the extent that he can do so without causing serious injury to the ship, crew or passengers … to render assistance to any person at sea in distress to get lost [and] proceed as quickly as possible in rescuing people in distress, if they have been warned of the need for assistance, to the extent that they can be reasonably expected. ”

The use of boats to circumvent small boats carrying migrants can directly conflict with this international requirement and moral obligation.

The challenge for the Home Office is that by pushing the ship back, it must be able to ensure the safety of the passengers. Clearly this is not possible if they are simply forcing a small boat, many of them in poor condition or downright dangerous, in the middle of the English Channel.

Home Office risks breaching the 1951 Refugee Convention

The measure of the Ministry of the Interior also threatens to violate the 1951 Refugee Convention. Article 1 of the 1951 Convention states that a “refugee” is a person “out of a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality. , belonging to a particular social group or political opinion, being out of reach of the country of their nationality and not being able to benefit from the protection of that country, due to this fear “.

As such, the means of transportation to a country to apply for asylum is irrelevant. Whether a person arrives in a small boat, a large yacht, an airplane or a vehicle, they have the right to apply for asylum and that application will be fairly considered. Furthermore, contrary to the misunderstanding of many, it is not necessary to seek asylum in the first safe country. In fact, most immigrants choose to make an effort to come to the UK and avoid other safe countries because they want to reunite with their loved ones who already live here.

On September 10, the UK government denied that it was violating international law. According to British Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, Patel is “rightly exploring every possible avenue.” He explained: “We said that would include looking back at migrants, but that would only be done in accordance with international law, and the safety of migrants is clearly the top priority.”

Unfortunately, Dowden also made a statement that may be misleading: “First, regarding these immigrants, it is worth noting that they come from a safe country, which is France … This has been a constant problem for a long period of time. . The Home Secretary is rightly exploring all possible avenues to stop that. ”

Hostile environment

As we have said in the past, the government cannot say that it is willing to comply with and violate international law at the same time. This is not a defensible position. What is needed is a more empathetic approach that breaks the tired narrative of the ‘hostile environment’, in combination with better collaboration with our continental friends.

Appearing open to the arrival of evacuees from Afghanistan while turning our backs on asylum seekers crossing the canal sends the message that we are only willing to protect some of those who need help and not others.