UK to Deploy New Migrant Pushback Tactics in the English Channel

maritime refoulement
Acabashi / CC BY SA 4.0

Published Sep 9, 2021 11:41 PM by The Maritime Executive

Facing an ongoing surge of maritime migration in the English Channel, the UK's Border Force is now training up its officers with new tactics to turn around migrant boats and send them back into French waters, the Home Office confirmed Thursday. The training period is set to conclude this month and the tactics could be in use shortly after. 

The new procedures will only be used when the circumstances are safe, the Home Office said. The change is a remarkable development, as migrant boats in the Channel's busy shipping lanes are frequently treated as vessels in distress and provided with emergency response services. Under international law, SOLAS requires a vessel's master to render aid to a distressed vessel and to deliver any rescued survivors to a "place of safety," without regard to the nationality or immigration status of the vessel's occupants. Britain's acting attorney general, Michael Ellis, is expected to release the legal basis justifying the new policy in short order. 

In a diplomatic letter leaked to British media on Thursday, French interior minister Gérald Darmanin informed the Home Office that the new tactics could reduce France's willingness to cooperate on countermigration.

"Safeguarding human lives at sea takes priority over considerations of nationality, status and migratory policy, out of strict respect for the international maritime law governing search and rescue at sea," he wrote. "With regard to traffic and conditions for crossing the Channel, France has no other solution than to intervene most often on the basis of the provisions in international law governing search and rescue at sea. The use of maritime refoulements [pushing migrant vessels back] to French territorial waters would risk having a negative impact on our cooperation."

For her part, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel emphasized Wednesday that deterring irregular migration was her department's number-one priority. The UK has seen the arrival of more than 14,000 asylum-seekers so far this year - a new record - and the influx of non-citizens is controversial in Britain.

The tactics have been in the works for some time. In September 2020, UK officials involved in the effort began testing a "‘blockade’ tactic in the Channel on the median line between French and UK waters, akin to the Australian ‘turn back’ tactic, whereby migrant boats would be physically prevented (most likely by one or more UK RHIBs [rigid hull inflatable boats] from entering UK waters," according to documents obtained by The Guardian. The UK Home Office's Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, Dan O'Mahoney, told media last year that his department was also considering the use of nets to foul the propellers of migrant boats.