Pushing back migrant boats a ‘court disaster’, warns former chief prosecutor

A controversial decision to ‘push back’ migrants crossing the English Channel is a ‘judicial disaster’, a former director of public prosecutions has warned.

It would only take one tragedy resulting from the high-risk tactic to “shame” the nation before the world, said independent counterpart Lord Macdonald of River Glaven.

Casting doubts on the legality of the plan to turn around at sea, he also argued that it was likely to be unworkable.

Lord Macdonald, who ran the Crown Prosecution Service from 2003 to 2008, made his critical comments as the House of Lords continued its detailed scrutiny of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which aims to limit Channel crossings and to modify the processing of asylum applications.

The legislation includes the power to refuse ships carrying migrants from the UK.

It is estimated that more than 1,300 people crossed the Channel to the UK in small boats in January, more than six times the number who managed to make the dangerous journey in the same month last year.

More than 28,300 people made the crossing in 2021, triple that of 2020.

Opposing the reversal tactic, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven said: “There appears to be a serious risk that pushbacks will be incompatible with certain international legal obligations to which the UK has entered.

“This is because they can easily come into conflict with the right of those fleeing persecution to seek asylum.

“They can easily come into conflict with the ban on collective expulsions. They can easily come into conflict with the duty to assist those in distress at sea.”

He added: “They also raise the specter of other rights violations, including the violation of the right to life.

It is estimated that more than 1,300 people crossed the Channel to the UK in small boats in January (Gareth Fuller/PA)

“This is because these are likely to be extremely dangerous maneuvers with a high risk of damage, injury or even drowning.

“Those who know the Channel know that it is not a hospitable place. And we all know that the boats used by these refugees are fragile and unseaworthy. It is therefore a policy, if ever it were to be implemented, which is heading for disaster.

“It would only take one tragedy to expose this and I would suppose bring our country to shame in front of the world.”

Lord Macdonald continued: “The policy is probably unworkable for two reasons. First of all, the boats can only be returned to French territorial waters with the agreement of France, which has not been given and is very unlikely to be in the future.

“Secondly, and some may say to their credit, it seems quite unlikely that Border Force officers will agree to implement it.”

In response, Home Secretary Baroness Williams of Trafford said: “The safety of life at sea will remain the priority for any interception of small craft crossing the English Channel and always in compliance with international obligations under maritime safety.”

She added: “Trained officers deployed to apply tactics using these powers will also operate within a clear set of procedures which are regularly reviewed and designed to ensure that no action endangering lives is taken.”

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