The Home Secretary Priti Patel wants to authorise the Border Force to turn back boats crossing the channel, despite opposition from France, trade unions, international lawyers, refugee advocates and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).  As many as 1,200 people crossed the Channel in small boats on 6 September, marking the largest number of arrivals on record in a single day. NGOs condemn government attempts to criminalise journeys, saying Afghans making the Channel crossing should not be vilified. The UK Home Office spent almost nine million GBP on the deportation of less than 900 people in 2020, including 500,000 GBP for planes that never left the tarmac.

After a two-week lull due to poor weather conditions, crossings of the channel from France to the UK started up again on 5 September with 158 arrivals. The following day, rescue organisations estimated that more than 1,000 people made the crossing, breaking the previous daily record of 828 arrivals from 21 August. The Home Office is yet to confirm figures but said on 6 September that the number was closer to 850. Crossings continued over the following days, with 456 people arriving on 7 September and 301 on 8 September.  More than 14,000 people have crossed into the UK aboard small boats this year, surpassing the 8,417 successful journeys that were recorded in 2020.

The spike in arrivals worsened a diplomatic spat between the UK and France over their shared borders, with Home Secretary Priti Patel claiming France “won’t see a penny” of the 54 million GBP promised to block migrant departures.  After the Home Secretary met her French counterpart, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, on 7 September, the former claimed she would authorise the UK Border Force to turn back boats arriving from France. The Home Secretary allegedly “told law officers to rewrite Britain’s interpretation of international maritime law to allow the Border Force to intercept boats as they tried to enter British territorial waters. Officers would then contact the French coastguard to inform it that vessels in French territorial waters were in need of rescue, which would put the legal responsibility for the migrant boats on France.” A rebuttal from France on 7 September warned the UK that such a practice would violate international law. This sentiment was echoed by numerous charities, as well as the Immigration Services Union, who noted that the plan depended on France agreeing to intercept pushed-back boats. ECRE member Refugee Action said the announcement was an “extreme, illegal, cowardly and a depressing response” to people seeking refuge in the UK, while UNHCR said the plan was “dangerous in so many ways”.

The funds alluded to by the Home Secretary were offered as part of a 2020 UK-France agreement whereby France accepted to double the number of police patrolling the 150km stretch of coast used by human smugglers. At the end of August, new barriers were installed along the motorway near Calais in a further attempt to stop people hiding in the back of UK-bound lorries. The installation of nearly 65km of fences and barriers since 2015 is in large part funded by the UK government.

The Home Office meanwhile continues to discourage Afghans and other forcibly displaced from seeking refuge in Britain without advance permission. Minister Victoria Atkins reiterated warnings for Afghans against arriving “illegally” while the Home Secretary underlined that arrivals of Afghans fleeing the Taliban must happen in an “orderly and legal way”. Earlier this year 450 academics and immigration experts condemned this emphasis on “illegal” routes, saying that it vilified asylum seekers who had no choice but to travel by irregular means.  The academics wrote: “These are not illegal journeys … under international law one cannot travel illegally if one is seeking asylum.” The government remains focused on the resettlement of UK-associated Afghan nationals, and said this week it would providing countries neighbouring Afghanistan with 30 million GBP to deal with refugees.

Rescue organisations and advocacy groups meanwhile described dangerous Channel crossings as a result of a near-complete lack of legal routes to Britain. “This government must change its approach,” said Enver Solomon, head of the British Refugee Council, an ECRE member organisation. “Instead of seeking to punish or push away people seeking safety because of the type of journey they have made to the UK, they must create and commit to more safe routes.” Civil society organisations continue to criticise the government for pushing ahead legislation criminalising all people crossing the Channel in small boats. At the UK Parliament Human Rights Committee public evidence hearing on the Nationality and Borders Bill on 8 September, refugees, lawyers, and expert organisations gave evidence on the negative human rights impact of this proposed legislation.

On 4 September the Home Office said it would not extend prima facie refugee status to Afghans awaiting asylum decisions in the UK. Critics say this leaves more than 3,000 people in a “nightmarish limbo”, the majority of whom have been waiting more than six months for an initial decision. Meanwhile, leaked documents show that the Home Office spent 8.8 million GBP on deporting 828 people in 2020, including 500,000 GBP on flights that did not take off.

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Photo: (CC) Jeff Djevdet, February 2016

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.