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UK Border Force may have begun attempts to push refugees back across the Channel already, evidence suggests

Meanwhile, a Sudanese man drowns off the northern coast of France today

ACTIVISTS have warned that the UK Border Force (UKBF) may have begun implementing the Home Office’s controversial plans to push asylum seekers back across the Channel to France.

Channel Rescue, a human rights group monitoring the sea between Britain and France, said yesterday that evidence it has collected, along with an article in The Times newspaper, suggests the border force will try to implement the plans before the judicial reviews into the policy can stop it.

Three legal challenges have been launched against Conservative Home Secretary Priti Patel’s plans. One by Channel Rescue, a joint challenge by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union and Care4Calais, and another by Freedom from Torture.

The legal challenges state that international human rights laws strictly forbid the practice of forcing people back to a place where they might face danger. This practice is known in legal terms as refoulement, but more commonly called pushback.

According to the report in The Times last week, the UKBF has been prepared to push asylum seekers back to French waters since December 2020, and British Home Secretary Priti Patel is determined to see the policy carried out as soon as possible.

“Senior Home Office sources said the [UKBF] had been operationally ready to deploy the tactics, which involve three jet skis surrounding a migrant boat and directing it back to France, on at least two days last month when the right weather and maritime conditions were met,” The Times’ report says.

“However, as there were no crossings on those particular days, the tactics were not used.”

The paper cited an anonymous Home Office source, saying: “They are ready to be launched. We’re ready to turn back migrant boats. There have been occasions when Border Force have been ready to do turnbacks, but the conditions are very limited. But they remain ready to be used this month.”

The British government’s guidance states, according to The Times’ story, that the UKBF can only carry out a “turnback” in a section of the Channel that is 1.8 miles wide.

The story did not say where this 1.8 mile section is.

However, a Channel Rescue activist told The Civil Fleet today that they believe the section may be the Traffic Separation Zone (TSZ), represented by the thick purple line in the image below.

The Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world and therefore movement through it is highly organised.

Maritime traffic is coordinated by the International Maritime Organisation, through a system called a Transport Separation Scheme.

The image above, provided by Channel Rescue, shows how the Transport Separation Scheme works in the Channel.

The thick purple line in the middle is the TSZ. It is the dividing line between vessels moving in opposite directions — kind of like the barrier in the middle of a motorway. Most ships passing through the Channel should only enter the TSZ in emergencies.

Vessels sailing southwest through the Channel towards the Atlantic Ocean should sail along the route indicated by the purple arrows above the TSZ.

Anything heading northeast (towards Belgium, Denmark, Russia, etc)) should follow the route set out by the arrows below the TSZ.

It was roughly within this zone yesterday morning where Channel Rescue spotted three UKBF vessels operating.

Using the ship tracking website Marine Traffic, the activists noticed the three UKBF boats in the TSZ were the Seeker (a patrol ship), Juno 3 (a jet ski) and Champion (a rigid-hulled inflatable boat, or Rhib).

The conditions — a UKBF ship and a jet ski within a small, empty area in the Channel in perfect weather conditions — coincide very closely with what The Times reported.

A composite image of the Channel’s Transport Separation Scheme and the movements of the UKBF’s vessels yesterday, clearly within the TSZ [Pic: Channel Rescue]

Channel Rescue shared the screen-captured image below on social media yesterday, saying in the post: “We are concerned about the imminent operationalisation of the pushback policy before our judicial review.”

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents UKBF workers, told Ms Patel yesterday that it was ready to apply for a court injunction if the Home Office does not suspend her pushback policy.

“The arrogance of this government is breathtaking,” PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said in a statement yesterday.

“The legality of the pushbacks policy is before the High Court, and yet the ministers think they can instruct our members to carry out a morally reprehensible and potentially unlawful act.

“It is outrageous that the Home Office announced that it is pressing ahead with the policy when it knows that it is subject to judicial review.

“Our focus is to protect Border Force members, abide by the law and avoid harming refugees who try to reach the UK.”

Care4Calais CEO Clare Moseley said: “Care4Calais is deeply concerned that the Home Office’s pushbacks policy will cause deaths at sea.

“With evidence before the court that the policy will put migrants at risk of serious harm or death, it cannot be right for the Home Office to try to implement the policy before the court has decided if it is lawful.

“We believe that we need to do all we can to protect life, and that is why we have put the Home Office on notice of an injunction application.“

Meanwhile, a Sudanese man drowned off the northern coast of France today.

The French authorities said they found the man unconscious in the Channel after he fell overboard, and that they rescued 32 others in the waters near Calais.

“Our hearts go out to their loved ones. This tragedy could have been prevented,” Channel Rescue said today.

“The inhumane policies of the British and EU governments must come to an end.”

Refugees in Libya, an activist group made of African refugees stuck in Tripoli, echoed the same sentiment today.

“The United Kingdom must revise its laws. People don’t have to die,” the group’s Yambio David Oliver said in a video message.

“Even after reaching European shores [from Libya], there are no safe passages for people to reach the UK. This has to be revised.

“The perpetrators of crimes against humanity in Libya and even in Europe must be accountable to the law.”

Top image shows UKBF jet skis practising pushback tactics on a dinghy


Published by The Civil Fleet

A news blog and podcast focused on the activist-led refugee rescue and support missions across Fortress Europe

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