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Priti Patel abandons ‘pushbacks’ in Channel days before legal challenge

Government lawyers confirm controversial tactic has been withdrawn, week before hearing was due to begin

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 25 April 2022 11:57 BST
What's behind the Channel crossing 'crisis'? | Behind The Headlines

Priti Patel has abandoned her plan to use refugee pushbacks in the Channel, days before the policy was set to be challenged in the High Court.

Correspondence from the government legal department on Sunday night states that the Home Office had withdrawn the policy due to the fact that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was taking over operations in the Channel.

Judicial review claims, lodged by the PCS Union, Care4Calais, Freedom from Torture and Channel Rescue, have now been withdrawn, with the Home Office having agreed to pay the claimants’ costs.

The organisations were due to argue that the policy, which would have authorised and encouraged Border Force officials to forcibly redirect vessels carrying migrants back to France, was unlawful at a three-day hearing from 3 May.

But the letter, signed on behalf of the Treasury solicitor, states that the policy had been withdrawn after the home secretary was informed last week that the MoD did not have permission to deploy the pushback tactic.

“As a result of a military order notified to the [home secretary’s] officials earlier on 20 April 2022, the Ministry of Defence Joint Commander has not had permission to authorise the use of turnaround tactics,” it states.

“As a consequence of these matters, a number of issues relevant to this litigation needed further discussion and review.”

The Home Office says similar tactics may be deployed in the future, though these would only be used after full consideration of all relevant factors, including the current small boats threat, at which point new policies, guidance and operational procedures would need to be formulated.

Jeremy Bloom, lead solicitor representing PCS and Care4Calais, said: “We are convinced that the home secretary has withdrawn the policy because she knew that she would lose in court if she went to trial. 

“The court would have found that she does not have a power under existing legislation to do this, and that she would have been authorising her officials to use force unlawfully, and in breach of the rights to life and to be free from inhumane treatment, which are rights protected by the Human Rights Act.

“This is a good day for vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers and for the Border Force officials that would have been under great pressure from the home secretary to put their lives and the lives of refugees at risk.”

The climbdown comes as the Nationality and Borders Bill reaches its final stages in parliament. The House of Lords has twice rejected parts of the bill that would severely penalise refugees arriving in the UK without a visa, as they are fully entitled to do under the Refugee Convention.

The bill returns to the House of Lords on Tuesday, where peers are expected to mount further opposition.

Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, said: “This humiliating climbdown by the government is a stunning victory for Home Office workers and for refugees.

“The pushbacks manoeuvre is extremely dangerous and represents a clear risk to life and limb. We were simply not prepared to allow our members to be placed in this horrendous position.”

Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said:  “Threatening these tactics is yet another example of this government trying to score political points by bullying vulnerable people who simply need our help.”

She added that the charity was now preparing to challenge the government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, describing it as “another staggeringly expensive exercise when we should be helping people who are simply trying to escape conflict, persecution and torture”.

A government spokesperson said: “It is right that we consider all safe and legal options to stop these unnecessary journeys, including turning boats around.

“As we have set out previously, this tactic fully complies with both domestic and international law, however, there are extremely limited circumstances when you can safely turn boats back in the English Channel.”

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