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Seeking Sanctuary, of Deal, and Kent Refugee Action Network, of Canterbury, condemn plans to turn back small boats in Channel

Asylum seeker charities say plans to turn back small boats at sea are "cruel, militaristic, toxic and chaotic."

Home Secretary Priti Patel has ordered officials to rewrite maritime law to allow boats carrying asylum seekers to be intercepted in the Channel, and Border Force officers will be trained in the new tactics.

One vessel at sea carrying in excess of 13 people. Library image
One vessel at sea carrying in excess of 13 people. Library image

After turning the boats around, officials will then contact the French coastguard to inform it that vessels in their country's territorial waters are in need of rescue.

The tactics could only be used in certain conditions. These will include ensuring the vessel is not in danger of sinking and was able to safely make it back to the French coast.

It is expected the measure will only be used in "very limited circumstances" and will target sturdier boats rather than dinghies.

Ben Bano, from Deal-based Seeking Sanctuary, said: "The proposal is cruel, dangerous and illegal.

"Are those who put these ideas forward serious about turning around overloaded boats and exposing children and families to yet more danger? And these proposals are a clear breach of our legal obligations.

Ben Bano of Seeking Sanctuary
Ben Bano of Seeking Sanctuary

"Crossing the Channel in a small boat may be irregular but it is not illegal if the intention is to claim asylum.

"In the absence of safe and legal ways to get to the UK to claim asylum there will always be people desperate enough to put their lives in the hands of traffickers.

"And are we turning away those brave Afghans with connections with the UK who could not be airlifted out of the country in time? Let's for once show some understanding and humanity in these challenging times."

Kay Marsh, of Channel Rescue, said: "International maritime law stipulates that ships have a clear duty to assist those in distress, people at risk of losing their lives at sea must be rescued.

"The announcement from the British government is in direct contravention of this law.

Kay Marsh from Channel Rescue
Kay Marsh from Channel Rescue

"The authorisation of pushbacks means the lives of thousands of innocent children, women and men have been put at greater risk. Instead of trying to stop people or turn them back the UK government needs to invest in long term solutions and safe and legal routes for refugees wishing to seek sanctuary in Britain.

"In comparison to the rest of Europe, the UK takes a very low number of refugees per year. We need to step up and take our share of the responsibility for people who are being displaced from their homes.

"There is an urgent need for safe and legal routes for those wishing to claim asylum. The securitisation and militarisation of the border must end."

Bridget Chapman, of Canterbury-base Kent Refugee Action Network, said: "This is yet another unworkable proposal in a series of increasingly toxic and chaotic suggestions from the Home Office that have included wave machines and a processing centre on Ascension Island.

"Even the representative from the Border Force's union on Radio 4 this morning said that she thought that this was unlikely to ever actually happen.

"Rather than find a workable solution the government would rather bluster and sabre rattle."

"Putting aside the immorality for one moment, this idea seems to be completely illegal, going against both the Geneva Convention and international maritime law.

"It looks like, rather than find a workable and humanitarian solution to this issue, the government would rather bluster and sabre rattle.

"France already takes three times the numbers of asylum seekers we do.

"The relatively small number that want to seek asylum in the UK have a legal right to do that and we need to offer them better options, such as a humanitarian visa that would mean they could cross safely and in a regularised fashion.

"That would kill the smugglers' business overnight, as well as being better for our border security.

Bridget Chapman of Kent Refugee Action Network. Picture from Bridget Chapman
Bridget Chapman of Kent Refugee Action Network. Picture from Bridget Chapman

"The question is whether the government wants to offer genuine and workable solutions or to hide a lack of action with tough talk. Sadly I suspect it's the latter."

Lucy Moreton, professional officer of the Union for Borders, Immigration and Customs, had said on national media that vessels cannot be simply turned around and let go.

She added that the consent of the French would be needed because a boat would have to be rescued by their authorities.

The French Government has already written to the Home Secretary saying her latest plan would have "a negative impact on our co-operation."

Home Secretary Priti Patel
Home Secretary Priti Patel

It also rejected a British request to set up a joint command centre in northern France including police and border control officers from both countries patrolling the coastline.

The French are already continually preventing migrant crossings to Kent.

The British Home Office's own figures show that they stopped more than 1,000 people over three days in 32 incidents.

On Monday they intercepted 14 crossings, preventing 378 people from reaching the UK.

On Tuesday French authorities reported seven incidents and stopped 326 people.

Asylum seekers have regularly been stopped off the French coast
Asylum seekers have regularly been stopped off the French coast

Yesterday (Wednesday) they reported 11 events, stopping 302 people.

More than 1,500 people are thought to have reached UK shores this week, taking the number for the year above 14,000: almost 6,000 more than made the treacherous journey in 2020.

The use of small crafts to reach the UK has been a regular tactic of asylum seekers over the last three years.

"The rise in dangerous crossings is being driven by criminal gangs."

They have either been rescued at sea and brought to Dover by the Border Force or landed on beaches such as in Kingsdown near Deal, and Romney Marsh

Their previous common method of reaching the UK was from inside the backs of lorries travelling on ferries to Dover.

Dan O’Mahoney, UK Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, said: “This unacceptable rise in dangerous crossings is being driven by criminal gangs and a surge in illegal migration across Europe.

“We’re determined to target the criminals at every level, so far, we have secured nearly 300 arrests, 65 convictions and prevented more than 10,000 migrant attempts.”

“But there is more to do. The Government’s New Plan for Immigration is the only credible way to fix the broken asylum system, breaking the business model of criminal gangs and welcoming people through safe and legal routes.”

Asylum seekers are brought into Dover Marina in a Border Force Search and Rescue boat, July 2021. Picture Sam Lennon
Asylum seekers are brought into Dover Marina in a Border Force Search and Rescue boat, July 2021. Picture Sam Lennon

The British Government stresses that people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach and not risk their lives making these dangerous crossings from a safe EU country.

It adds that more than 65 small boat-related prosecutions have been secured since the start of 2020, totalling over 53 years in custodial sentence.

The New Plan for Immigration will change the law so those who facilitate these dangerous crossings will face a maximum of life imprisonment.

The British Government is also trying to tackle the problem through the Nationality and Borders Bill, which passed its Second Reading in Parliament in July.

UK authorities say that there are other safer and legal routes for people to use to come to the UK.

In addition to their humanitarian refugee resettlement with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) it offers work and study routes, as well as family resettlement.

The new Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme will give 20,000 Afghans fleeing persecution a new life in the UK through a safe and legal route.

Refugees have been flown out of Afghanistan to the UK since the hard line Taliban took over the country on August 15.

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We appreciate it is a very divisive issue but must ensure our comments adhere to house rules.

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