Priti Patel boat ‘pushback’ plan ‘inhumane, unconscionable and reckless’, says Labour

‘You are putting lives at risk,’ Nick Thomas-Symonds says in letter to home secretary

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Saturday 11 September 2021 14:15 BST

Priti Patel’s plans for “pushbacks” in the English Channel to deter migrants has been described as “inhumane, unconscionable and extremely reckless” by Labour, as the party posed questions about the legality of the techniques.

In a letter to the home secretary, seen by The Independent, frontbencher Nick Thomas-Symonds described the proposals as “appalling” and said the government risked “flagrantly breaking international obligations” and maritime law.

In the correspondence, the shadow home secretary urged Ms Patel to sanction the publication of legal advice received by the Home Office and also urged the cabinet minister to disclose the “certain circumstances” the techniques may be used.

His letter comes amid warnings this week that the Channel could become a “theatre of human tragedies” amid the controversial plans to turn small migrant boats back around – forcing them to be dealt with by French authorities.

It was reported that members of the Border Force were being given special training to handle migrant boats, but would only deploy the “pushback” tactics when deemed practical and safe to do so.

The home secretary’s plan, which came in response to orders from the prime minister to curb the crossings, however, sparked a diplomatic spat between Paris and London, with her French counterpart Gerald Darmanin expressing anger and campaigners outraged.

“France will not accept any practice that is contrary to the law of the sea, nor any financial blackmail,” he posted on social media.

In his letter to Ms Patel, the shadow home secretary Mr Thomas-Symonds wrote: “It is appalling that you have even considered and now granted, the approval for ‘push-back’ techniques for small boat crossings.

“These techniques are dangerous, inhumane, unconscionable and extremely reckless: you are putting lives at risk, including those of children.”

Contrasting the historic “proud record” of Britain welcoming refugees, including young children on the Kindertransport fleeing the Nazi regime, he said the new proposals were a “sobering reminder of the lack of compassion and competence this government has when dealing with Channel crossings”.

In a series of questions to the home secretary, Mr Thomas-Symonds said: “It is reported that you have received legal advice about this new technique: in the circumstance, given the risk to life, can you publish it immediately?

“It is reported that the ‘push-back’ technique will only be used in certain circumstances: can you please outline what they are?”.

In a statement, he went on: “Turning boats around at sea in the world’s busiest shipping channel is dangerous and risks lives.

“The home secretary has failed to tackle the vile criminal gangs who are profiting from people smuggling and this should be her focus, along with securing an effective deal with France and safe legal routes.

“The that home secretary is even considering these dangerous proposals shows how badly she has lost control of the situation.”

Earlier this week, the prime minister’s official spokesperson declined to discuss the new approach, saying: “I’m not going to get into the operational tactics used by Border Force staff.”

But they added: “It’s right that our Border Force has the right range of tactics to address this problem. They will make sure it is tested and that it is carried out by trained Border Force staff and that it is safe and legal.”

Speaking on Friday, the cabinet minister Oliver Dowden insisted his colleague Ms Patel was “rightly exploring every possible avenue” to address the situation.

“We have said that that will include looking at turning migrants back, but that will only be done in accordance with international law, and clearly the safety of migrants is absolutely paramount.”

The Home Office has been contacted for comment.

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