In Brief

‘Pushing back’ migrant boats: a sensible way to stamp out people-smuggling or a deeply ‘callous’ policy?

Priti Patel has secured new advice authorising Border Force to ‘push back’ migrant boats into French waters

More than 14,000 migrants have arrived in Britain illegally this year by crossing the Channel in small boats, said The Daily Telegraph. Many Britons are furious that people-smugglers are still making “a mockery of UK borders”.

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is “frustrated” too: she is threatening to “pull the plug” on a failing £54m deal with France to prevent migrants leaving its coast. She has also secured new advice from the Attorney General authorising Border Force to “push back” migrant boats into French waters: officials have been filmed using jet skis to turn around dinghies during practice drills off the Kent coast.

This policy has caused an outcry, but I know that it can work, said Alexander Downer, Australia’s former minister for foreign affairs, in the Daily Mail. Australia did it when “large numbers of economic migrants” began arriving in our waters from Indonesia. Patrol boats intercepted the smugglers’ vessels, repaired and refuelled them, then pointed them back towards Indonesia. It became very clear that we were going to stamp out people-smuggling, and the numbers were soon greatly reduced.

Such a policy would face a great many practical problems, said The Times. Legally, the migrants would have to be intercepted before they had reached British waters. Their boats would have to be seaworthy, not overloaded, and capable of returning to the French coast. The French coastguard would probably have to escort them back. And if migrants jumped into the sea, British officials would legally have to rescue them.

The key to solving this problem isn’t pushing back boats, it’s sensible cooperation with France. More importantly, it’s a deeply “callous” policy, said Sean O’Grady in The Independent. Are we really contemplating leaving migrants stuck “in limbo, waiting to sink”, between two of the richest nations on Earth? How long before some “poor desperate Afghan” is found “dead in the water”? The Government will bear responsibility for any deaths. Border Force staff must understand the repercussions if they “obey orders”.

It’s not yet clear whether this is official policy, said Diane Taylor in The Guardian. In the past, many of Patel’s plans to tackle the migrant crisis have come to nothing. She has previously suggested holding asylum seekers in “processing centres” outside the UK; and greatly increasing deportations. She has even mooted “installing giant wave machines” in the Channel. None of these plans ever came to fruition. It has also been rumoured that she might yet lose her job. The chances of the push-back scheme “actually being put into practice are slim”.

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