Is Priti Patel’s ‘pushback’ policy to stop boats crossing the Channel legal?

John Rentoul explains why unauthorised boats cannot simply be turned back

Sunday 14 November 2021 21:30
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<p>Priti Patel, the home secretary, has to talk to the French government </p>

Priti Patel, the home secretary, has to talk to the French government

When Priti Patel, the home secretary, announced plans to push back boats in the Channel, many observers including The Independent said it would not work. As we reported last week, this has turned out to be the case, as Border Forces have narrowed the circumstances in which the policy could be applied to conditions unlikely to be met in practice. These include a willingness of French vessels on the other side of the sea border to receive the boats that are being turned back, which French authorities say they are not prepared to do.

It is beginning to look as if the push-back policy was yet another unworkable device designed to gain headlines rather than to solve the problem. It joins the embarrassment of suggestions from the Home Office of using wave machines or offshore processing centres on Ascension and St Helena, which may be intended to suggest that the government is trying to deal with the issue but succeed mainly in drawing attention to its lack of grip.

This may seem odd because, at first sight, any country ought to be able to prevent people from arriving without going through formal immigration checks. But applying fair rules is difficult in practice, as can be seen at land borders such as Poland’s with Belarus and that of the US with Mexico, and even more difficult with sea borders such as those of Italy, Greece and the UK. In these cases, the humanitarian problem is more acute, as all nations have a responsibility to prevent drowning, while desperate people are driven to take to the sea in dangerous boats.

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