French coastguard rescues 36 migrants in the English Channel

Former UK prosecutor warns policy to push back small boats at sea may be illegal

Dozens of migrants were rescued off the French coast as they attempted to make their way to Britain. AP
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The French coastguard rescued 36 migrants in the English Channel who were trying to cross to Britain in an inflatable dinghy, the maritime authority for northern France said on Thursday.

French authorities have been intercepting inflatable boats several times a month, returning people to French shores, a government spokeswoman said.

In November, 27 migrants died when their dinghy deflated as they tried to cross the English Channel, resulting in a period of soul searching in the UK over the plight of asylum seekers attempting to make the dangerous crossing.

Britain has pledged to make crossing nearly impossible, threatening to send some boats back to France.

The move to “push back” migrants crossing the Channel “courts disaster”, a former UK director of public prosecutions has said.

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

Lord Macdonald, who headed 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 seeks to curb Channel crossings and change how asylum claims are processed.

The legislation includes the power to turn away vessels carrying migrants.

In opposing the bill, Lord Macdonald said: “There appears to be a grave risk that push backs would be inconsistent with certain international legal obligations which the United Kingdom has entered into.

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

“They may easily conflict with the prohibition on collective expulsion. They may easily conflict with the duty to render assistance to those in distress at sea.”

He added that is also raises the spectre of the breach of other rights, such as the right to lift.

“This is because they are likely to be extremely dangerous manoeuvres with a high risk of damage, injury or even drowning,” he said.

“Those who are familiar with the English Channel know that it is not a hospitable place. And we all know the craft used by these refugees are flimsy and unseaworthy.

“So this is a policy, if it were ever to be implemented, that courts disaster.

“It would take just one tragedy to expose this and I would assume to shame our country before the world.”

It has been estimated more than 1,300 people crossed the Channel to the UK on small boats in January, more than six times the number who succeeded in making the hazardous trip in the same month last year.

More than 28,300 people made the crossing in 2021, triple the number for 2020.

Updated: February 10, 2022, 11:49 PM