UK Border Force agents could be given immunity from conviction if a migrant drowns in a “push back” exercise against boats in the English Channel, under government proposals.
Home Secretary Priti Patel is seeking to introduce a provision in the Nationality and Borders Bill which would offer officials legal protections in the event of a fatal incident at sea.
The UK has agreed to pay £54 million ($73m) to France to stop boats of migrants leaving the country bound for Britain. The French government has said it has yet to receive the money.
However, lawyers could test any provision affords agents immunity under international maritime laws.
Under existing laws, officials would risk prosecution if they turn around a boat on which a migrant is in danger or drowns.
The government’s proposal to protect Border Force is laid out in schedule 4A, part A1, paragraph J1 of the bill.
“A relevant officer is not liable in any criminal or civil proceedings for anything done in the purported performance of functions under this part of this schedule if the court is satisfied that (a) the act was done in good faith, and (b) there were reasonable grounds for doing it,” it says.
It comes weeks after Patel bid to introduce the controversial tactic was heavily criticised by charities helping refugees and migrants.
The home secretary reportedly instructed Border Force to begin practicing pushing back small boats in a bid to deter illegal immigration.
The push back exercises, if given the go-ahead, would see Border Force turn around boats entering UK seas and send them back into French waters.
The decision whether to take such action would lie with the captain of the Border Force vessel which intercepts the migrant boat.
A number of factors would be considered before officials move in to divert the vessel, such as weather conditions and risk of drowning.
Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister, said there is no guarantee the provision will be successful in protecting Border Force from punishment.
“There are two qualifiers in the provision and it is hard to see how it could be reasonable to leave someone to either drown at sea or in a small boat which doesn’t have enough fuel to reach land,” he told The Guardian.
Amid the rising number of migrants arriving in the UK, Patel has come under pressure from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Conservative party members to prevent entries.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 17,000 people have landed on UK shores having travelled from France on small boats, usually rubber dinghies - more than double the number of crossings in 2020.
The UN refugee agency (UNHRC) has claimed the Nationality and Borders Bill, currently at the committee stage, would violate the 1951 refugee convention.
The government claims the bill aims to make the asylum system fairer, deter illegal entry to the UK and remove people who have not right to remain.
It proposes that any person who has used an illegal route to get to Britain could have their claim quashed, be jailed for up to four years and be denied access to public funds.
They could also have their family members barred from coming to the UK to join them.