Calling out the UK: Pushbacks of Asylum Seekers Cannot Be Normalized

October 1, 2021

Each attempt to push asylum seekers back is morally an act of violence and legally a violation of international law and it must stop now.
A group of people thought to be migrants are escorted by Police and Border Force officers away from the beach at St. Margaret's Bay near Dover in Kent after arriving on the beach in a small boat on September 26, 2021. Photo by Gareth Fuller, PA Images via Getty Images

Recently various footage started to circulate showing U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback using lariats, ropes used by horse riders, to chase down and push back Haitian migrants – women, men, and even children – stumbling through the Rio Grande in the hope of crossing over the Mexican border into Texas.

Images display the agents whipping the migrants, rounding them up, yanking their t-shirts, and insulting them. The brutality of the scenes caused widespread outrage both from civil society and institutions, including a condemnation from White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who described them as “horrific.”

The Texas Border Patrol’s mistreatment was so blatant and widely shared that everyone’s reaction couldn’t be anything other than criticism and shock. Yet each pushback entails the same violence, the same corporeity, the same fear for each and every person cornered and chased out, with or without such flagrant abuse at the hands of state forces – and yet so often included.

All around Europe pushbacks take place daily and generally do not meet the slightest outrage from national and European institutions.

During the pandemic European member states have employed illegal operations to push back at least 40,000 asylum seekers at both the E.U. external and internal borders. Their methods have led to the death of more than 2,000 people. Earlier this year, even Frontex, the E.U.’s border agency, has been accused of complicity in illegal and dangerous pushbacks in the Aegean Sea.

In the U.K., a Border Force team has been training for several months to learn exactly how to employ “turnaround” tactics at sea in order to force migrant boats back into French waters.

Nevertheless, this practice is not only intact in Europe but more openly accredited and promoted.

In the U.K., according to a recent government statement, a Border Force team has been training for several months to learn exactly how to employ “turnaround” tactics at sea in order to force migrant boats back into French waters.

On September 13, Border Force agents were spotted carrying out “pushback drills” in the Channel, using jet skis to divert fake dinghies and even putting their own staff into the small boats to replicate “how people crossing would be sat.” Already between August and September 2020, Border Force officers were reported trying to put into practice a blockade strategy in the Channel similar to the Australian “turn back the boats” tactic. It seems that the training will conclude this month, and that these new Border Force tactics could be used for the first time next week.

From next week on, small migrant boats crossing the Channel could be intercepted, blocked, and pushed back to France by U.K. Border Force agents aided by drones.

This comes after U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel tried to make such measures legal under the Nationality and Borders Bill, laid in parliament in July and still debated in the House of Commons. Patel ordered British officials to rewrite the UK’s interpretation of maritime laws to allow Border Force to turn small boats around. Asking to twist the law to pursue political gains is in itself a confirmation of the unlawfulness of such a proposal. Indeed, the Home Office declined to comment on specifics and refused to tell MPs the legal basis on which allegedly “in certain circumstances” pushbacks can be used.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already signed off the tactics; however, such a controversial measure is unworkable without French cooperation, and Paris does not seem willing to cooperate any longer.

Despite a previous bilateral agreement to double the number of French police patrolling the coastline and increase border security at ports with digital barriers like radars and optronic binoculars, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin rejected the latest policy on the grounds that “safeguarding human lives at sea takes priority over considerations of nationality, status and migratory policy.”

Paris warned that the Channel could become a “theatre of human tragedies.” At the same time, the U.K. Home Office’s own impact assessment in the Nationality and Borders Bill doesn’t say otherwise, as it states there is a serious risk that these measures could encourage people to attempt new and even riskier routes.

More and more people attempt the perilous sea route every year, a solid indication of how difficult or near impossible it is to gain entry to the UK by other means. While half of all migrants came by sea in 2020, in 2019, it was only 11%. In the last years, the Eurotunnel started to be subjected to much tighter control and the opportunity to board lorries through the fortifications around terminals or conceal oneself in vehicles was eventually cut off.

If people are desperate, they will do desperate things – and the U.K. is intentionally pushing asylum seekers trying to reach its territory to become ever more desperate.

Opposition is also coming from the trade union that represents the Border Force. Lucy Moreton of the Immigration Service Union (ISU), which represents frontline border staff, stated that this measure, announced without any warning, could put both migrants and Border Force officers at risk, prompting people to jump from boats.

According to the former director general of the U.K. Border Force, Tony Smith, the Australian tactic is an entirely different model, as “these are dangerous waterways [the English Channel] and very vulnerable vessels,” not designed to bring people ashore or to process people. “I think it is highly dangerous. … I fear for the worst. We have already had drownings. They are not as well reported as they should be, but we have had them. We do not know how many, of course, because bodies have not always been retrieved,” Smith said at the parliament’s debate on the new Nationality and Borders Bill.

Apart from the much higher life-threatening risks, such a pushback policy would provoke wider negative outcomes. On the one hand, it will likely encourage smugglers to develop and try new strategies to get around controls, like moving departure points further up the French coast to find longer and riskier routes. On the other hand, it would ultimately be up to individual on-scene Border Force agents to decide whether a boat is at risk of capsizing if forced back or it can be “safely” pushed back.

The arbitrariness of such decisions, the little oversight and accountability, and the violence every pushback entails by its very nature, as U.S. Border Patrol agents have recently shown, will make room for further abuses.

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Each attempt to push asylum seekers back is morally an act of violence and legally a violation of international law. In particular, two main breaches of international law can be identified in relation to such a pushback policy. One is the endangerment of the health and life of already vulnerable people in distress at sea, and particularly the breach of the international law stating it is every state’s duty to rescue at sea.

In a similar vein, French Interior Minister Darmanin stated that “France will not accept any practice contrary to the law of the sea, nor any financial blackmail.” The second main violation concerns migrants’ access to international protection, as the U.K. cannot automatically deny entry or return people without undertaking an individual assessment of their stories and needs. In doing so, pushbacks undermine people’s rights to asylum and due process – the decision to expel before these rights are met violates both international and European law.

Each and every case of pushback of vulnerable people seeking protection and in pursuit of a better life for themselves and their families should meet the same healthy reaction of outrage that followed the recent Texas Border Patrol’s aggressive mistreatment of Haitian migrants.

Pushbacks of asylum seekers cannot – in any case – be normalized.

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Michela Pugliese is a researcher on migration and asylum issues at the Geneva-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor.

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