Plans to use boats to push back migrants into French waters have been scrapped by the UK government days before a legal challenge.
Four organisations, including the civil servants’ trade union, launched the legal challenge, arguing pushback was an illegal, life-threatening policy that gave the interior ministry’s security force excessive powers.
The proposal was scrapped, the government said, because the Ministry of Defence had merely taken over operations in the English Channel from Border Force and it was no longer needed.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel have both been vocal supporters of the plan, and the Public and Commercial Services Union called the about-turn a “humiliating climbdown”.
The English Channel route for migrants is a political hot potato for the Conservative government dedicated to reducing the flow of refugees risking their lives in record numbers to reach Britain.
As part of that overall goal, it has also pushed forward its new plan: to send migrants using the English Channel to Rwanda.
They say the plan would thwart human traffickers who send migrants across the waterway and discourage migrants from using it.
Both the pushback and Rwanda policies have their critics among humanitarian groups working on both sides of the Channel.
The government said, in a letter to the Administrative Court, that with the Mod and Royal Navy taking over Channel policing it meant pushback was not needed.
“That development flowed from the prime minister’s announcement on Thursday 14 April 2022 that the Ministry of Defence was taking over primacy in respect of Channel operations with regard to small boat crossings.
“As a result of a military order notified to the secretary of state for the home department’s officials earlier on 20 April 2022, the Ministry of Defence joint commander has not had permission to authorise the use of turnaround tactics,” the letter said.
The PCS and three aid groups — Care4Calais, Channel Rescue and Freedom from Torture — brought the judicial review challenge, which had been scheduled to start on May 3.
“This humiliating climbdown by the government is a stunning victory for Home Office workers and for refugees,” said the PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka.
“There is little doubt that lives have been saved. The pushbacks manoeuvre is extremely dangerous and represents a clear risk to life and limb. We were simply not prepared to allow our members to be placed in this horrendous position.”
Steven Martin, of Channel Rescue, said: “Pushbacks are a reckless endangerment to life and we have always maintained and reminded the government that they are unlawful. The violent forcing back of people seeking protection is abhorrent and deprives them of their right to asylum.”