British Border Force agents appear to have been practising “pushback” tactics in the English Channel to return migrant boats to French waters a week after UK Home Secretary Priti Patel came under fire for the controversial approach.
During the drill off the coast of Dover in Kent, at least three jet skis were seen pursuing a vessel at high speed before surrounding it in what seemed to be an effort to turn it in the opposite direction.
The training exercise was caught on camera only days after the French government shot down the UK’s proposed policy and refused to co-operate.
The video shot by Sky News shows the agents on jet skis coming across a boat of migrants and directing them towards a Border Force boat.
Up to two dozen people wearing life jackets and crammed on to the rubber dinghy could be seen being helped on to the authority’s patrol boat.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the main opposition Labour Party's shadow home secretary, suggested the tactics would be unsafe to use on migrant boats because many of the vessels are not sturdy.
“Repeatedly, the Home Secretary has been asked for answers on this issue of the Channel crossings, of people who are coming across the Channel," he told Sky News.
“I was in Dover myself in recent weeks. I know how really fragile these craft are.”
A Home Office representative said: “We are seeing an unacceptable rise in dangerous and unnecessary small boat crossings, that’s why we continue to explore all options available to bring these numbers down.
“Our primary focus is on preventing people from entering the Channel, tackling the criminal gangs responsible and protecting lives.
“As part of our ongoing operational response, we continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options for stopping small boats.
“All operational procedures used at sea comply and are delivered in accordance with domestic and international law.
“We will fix the broken asylum system through our New Plan for Immigration, break the business model of people smugglers who put lives at risk and welcome people through safe and legal routes and as agreed at G7 we continue to co-operate with our international partners.”
The footage emerged after a record-breaking number of migrants crossed the Channel last week in mild weather.
Reports suggest 1,959 people crossed from France in the week to September 10, making it the highest total for any seven-day period since migrants began using boats to make the often perilous journey.
During the same period last year, slightly more than 500 people were recorded as having landed on UK shores in boats from France.
Over the past few months, London and Paris have been in dispute over how to address the issue of illegal migrant crossings.
The row came to a head last week when reports suggested Ms Patel had threatened to backtrack on a pledge to give the French £54 million ($75m) to stem the flow of boats to the UK.
France’s Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin, accused the British government of trying to “blackmail” its neighbours into co-operating with the plan.
He insisted that “France won’t accept any behaviour that breaches maritime law, or any financial blackmail”.
Opposition politicians and refugee groups in Britain were scathing in their response, with many warning that turning back boats would be a breach of international maritime laws.
The Home Office is understood to have secured legal advice which says it can redirect small boats away from British waters.
Migrants have long used northern France as a launching point to reach Britain, either by stowing away in lorries or on ferries, or – increasingly since the Covid pandemic disrupted international travel – in dinghies and other small boats organised by smugglers.
More than 14,000 people have made the crossing this year, according to a count by Britain’s Press Association news agency.
Last year about 8,500 people made the journey and several died in the attempt.