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The Channel Graveyard: How will Patel’s ‘Push Back’ Powers be Felt?

The Home Secretary’s new Nationality and Borders Bill is currently making its way through the legislative process, find our more about the impact the Bill could have.

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Written by Niamh Fegan an IAS Caeworker

Priti Patel’s new ‘push back’ powers

The recent disaster in the English Channel, in which 27 individuals lost their lives attempting to reach the UK in a small boat, has prompted debate on how to prevent future loss of life at sea.

With Patel’s new Nationality and Borders Bill currently making its way through the legislative process, it is important to think about how the provisions in the bill might impact those making the journey in the future.

The Home Secretary has made promises to overhaul the current asylum system using the powers contained in the new Bill, but will this really do anything to protect the lives of desperate asylum seekers?

The current asylum system

The UK’s asylum system currently allows people to claim refugee status from within the UK or at the port of entry. There are very limited available routes for people to apply for refugee status from outside of the UK. Arguably, this encourages people who do not fulfil the requirements of the resettlement schemes, but who want to flee persecution, to make treacherous journeys so they can reach the UK in order to claim asylum.

Currently, the UK authorities have maritime enforcement powers. Under the Immigration Act 1971, police officers can intercept ships and bring them to a UK port for detention. These powers must be carefully balanced with the obligations imposed by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (a.k.a. SOLAS). Under the convention, the UK is required to save those in distress at sea. The emphasis should be on protecting life and bringing anyone committing offences to the UK safely.

How will push back powers impact asylum seekers?

These measures would contradict the obligations placed on the UK authorities to protect life at sea, as pointed out by the JCHR. The incredibly risky journey across the Channel in a small boat would be made even more dangerous by officials potentially pushing boats back the way they came. It is clear that people fleeing persecution are willing to risk their lives to make the journey. Therefore, it seems very unlikely that increased push back powers would deter asylum seekers from making their journey. Instead, they will face a more dangerous journey, which could increase the harm to lives at sea. 

In a recent letter he tweeted, Boris Johnson set out what he thinks are the necessary steps for avoiding loss of life in the Channel. His focus is on increasing maritime patrol operations and surveillance, all to ‘tackle illegal immigration and human trafficking’. He expresses wishes to return migrants who reach the UK via the Channel. This narrative echoes the plans put forward in the Nationality and Borders Bill. This idea of pushing migrants back is a flawed approach. 

Push back powers will not save lives

People will continue to travel illegally to the UK. The people who do this via the Channel are in desperate situations – the only option they have to reach the UK is via illegal routes, and they have no choice but to reach the border to apply for refugee status. 

The UK government need to acknowledge that the asylum seekers who want to come to the UK are desperate. They are so desperate, that they continually risk their lives to reach the UK. They would rather die trying to reach safety than die from persecution in their countries of origin. Aside from legal obligations, we have a moral responsibility to help asylum seekers make their applications safely. To avoid people dying in the Channel, we need to avoid them having to make the journey in the first place. Increasing patrols of the Channel and introducing extreme push back powers will not achieve this. 

Can we really believe the government have the compassionate intentions of saving lives, given their flawed response to this recent catastrophe? If push back powers are what the future holds for the UK’s asylum system, any future blood lost in the Channel will be on this government’s hands. 

Creating safe routes for asylum

Creating safe routes for asylum seekers to come to the UK may be a better approach. People will not stop wanting to come to the UK. Perhaps, introducing more methods of claiming asylum in the UK from elsewhere in the world would be helpful.

If there was a way of processing refugee applications in this way, not as many individuals would need to make the illegal journey to enter, as they could make their applications from elsewhere.

Successful applicants could be given resources to make a safe and legal journey to the UK, avoiding any need to cross the Channel in a small boat. A suggestion made in a Guardian article was to allow asylum seekers to make their claims in France, before being brought to the UK on a ferry while their application is processed. This kind of approach is the only approach that makes sense. It is non-sensical to suggest that making the journey more dangerous would help protect those intending to make the journey. 

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