Staff members of the United Kingdom’s Border Force could go on strike over Home Secretary Priti Patel’s plans to turn back dinghies of refugees in the English Channel. Their union has described the plans as a “morally reprehensible” idea.
The Public and Commercial Services Union, or PCS, which represents most Border Force staff members, has teamed up with refugee charity Care4Calais to seek a judicial review of the policy.
With 2021 being the first year of Brexit, a move which was significantly promoted on a policy of Britain taking back control of its borders, boats containing 28,300 people crossed from the European mainland at the Dover Strait－three times the figure of the previous year.
The PCS said the idea of forcing boats out of British territorial waters “contravenes international law”, could put lives at risk, and expose Border Force staff to the risk of prosecution.
“The legality … is in serious question, and it is right that the court decides whether it is unlawful to turn back Channel boats,” said Mark Serwotka, the union’s general secretary.
“We cannot have a situation where our members could be open to potential civil and criminal action for implementing a policy that they do not agree with and know is not safe.”
In November, 27 people drowned in the Channel near the French port of Calais after their boat sank. The International Organization for Migration said it was the biggest single loss of lives in the Channel since data collection began in 2014.
When pushback was first proposed as part of the Nationality and Borders Bill that is currently going through the legislative process, it was criticized by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.
“The government is determined to prevent these crossings, but pushbacks are not the solution. They will not deter crossings, the seas will become even more dangerous and the people smugglers will continue to evade punishment,” said Harriet Harman, the committee’s chair.
“Current failures in the immigration and asylum system cannot be remedied by harsher penalties and more dangerous enforcement action. The bill is littered with measures that are simply incompatible with human rights law and the (United Kingdom)’s obligations under international treaties.”
Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said the pushback plan could devalue lives at sea.
“The proposed policy deprioritizes the UK’s duty under domestic and international law to save lives at sea. It is for good reason that this duty is a cornerstone of international maritime law,” she told The Guardian.
“It risks opening the gates to the horrific scenes we are seeing in the Mediterranean.”
In response, a Home Office spokesperson said it will continue to test a range of safe and legal options to stop small boats from making this dangerous and unnecessary journey as part of its ongoing operational response and prevent further loss of life at sea.