Political Clashes over Peril at Sea

Well over a thousand people – men, women, children and babies – have crossed the English Channel from France on small boats during the past few weeks. Politicians refer to them as migrants. Supportive campaigners call them refugees. On one day alone, Monday 6th September, blown by a warm easterly breeze and floating on calm seas, 785 of them made the passage, according to the Home Office Border Force. 

Many of the boats reached the local waters of Rye Bay and Eastbourne to be “intercepted” or “rescued” by RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) vessels, including the local Hastings lifeboat. Others seem to have reached the shore unescorted. A French press agency report quoted an anonymous eyewitness at Dungeness as noting that the Border Force “hadn’t been able to keep up” with the number of arrivals. “I found five sitting over on the beach the other morning — they’d burnt their mobile phones in a fire…You used to get a boatload now and again. Now you’re looking at three, four, five, if not more, in a day.”

The agents who organise these boatloads of human cargo were described by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Parliament last week as “criminal masterminds” indulging in a “vile trade” taking money from “desperate frightened people” to take them on a “very, very dangerous journey”.

Hastings lifeboat involved in Channel interceptions
CREDIT: Dave Young

Tide of refugees

Illegal boat crossings by prospective migrants have been a feature of Channel life for several decades, gradually stepped up as the tide of refugees from wars and oppressive regimes in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere has flooded over continental Europe. But with free movement between the UK and France curtailed by Brexit, Home Secretary Priti Patel has been attempting to find more aggressive ways of combatting them.

In August 2020 she appointed a former Royal Marine and National Crime Agency officer Dan O’Mahoney as Clandestine Channel Threat Commander with the primary responsibility, she declared, of “making the Channel route unviable for small boat crossings”. He was to collaborate closely with the French to adopt “stronger enforcement measures”, including interceptions at sea and the direct return of boats. 

It was claimed that France subsequently doubled the number of officers deployed daily on French beaches, purchased more cutting-edge surveillance technology, and doubled the number of successful interceptions. But clearly this was not enough. In July this year Ms Patel signed a “co-operative” agreement with French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. The UK would provide a financial package of £54.2m. France would re-double the number of police patrolling potential cast-off beaches between Boulogne and Dunkirk, expand patrols further south-west, including around Dieppe, and bolster hinterland surveillance.

Turn around

Less than two months on, inter-governmental relations have frayed. Ms Patel warned her French counterpart last week that the cash might be withheld if more boats were not intercepted. She also announced that, in certain circumstances and subject to her approval, UK Border Force vessels might force boats carrying migrants to turn around in the Channel, leaving French coastguards to intercept them in their territorial waters. According to a BBC report, a Border Force team has been training for months to begin such operations.

The French Interior Ministry retorted that such moves would flout international maritime law, under which people at risk of losing their lives at sea must be rescued. It also warned that there would be “consequences” if Britain refused to hand over the money.

Pierre-Henri Dumont, French National Assembly member MP for Calais, complained: “We are just doing our jobs and trying to save lives in the Channel and make sure that it does not turn into a graveyard. The UK needs to address the causes that make people want to claim asylum in the UK. Many of these people are from former British colonies.”

In all this, the people making successful crossings, as opposed to the ‘traffickers’ who make it possible, have received no penalty. They are treated as victims whose method of arrival, illegal and dangerous though it may be, is in practice condoned. 

Bill in Parliament

That will no longer be the case if the Nationality and Borders Bill currently being debated in Parliament is enacted. Among its provisions is one that makes it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK without permission. That means in effect a stripping of the right to asylum. Any adult who arrives illegally will risk being held indefinitely in a mass reception centre, deported or sent to an offshore holding facility, and be liable for up to four years in prison.

Critics argue that this is incompatible with the UK’s obligations under international law and weakens the protection available for people fleeing torture and persecution. The 1951 Refugee Convention specifically protects people seeking asylum from refusal on the grounds of their method of entry, taking account of the fact that for many in flight there is no viable way of seeking permission to enter a country in order to apply for asylum.

Hastings & Rye MP Sally Ann Hart has, however, supported the Bill in Parliament. She says that many constituents have written to her over a number of months, concerned at the growing numbers of ‘illegal’ channel crossings, and that the key objectives of the bill are to break up smuggling gangs, while also increasing “safe and legal routes” for refugees to reach the UK.

Hastings Community of Sanctuary (HCoS) is campaigning against it. HCoS and Amnesty member Pal Lustra calls Mrs Hart’s stated objectives “a falsehood…Nothing in this bill will do either of these things. Instead, the provisions in this anti-refugee bill are likely to further demonise people seeking protection and safety in this country. Seeking asylum is a basic human right. But this bill will make seeking asylum without approved entry illegal and a criminal offence.”

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