Priti Patel has been forced to withdraw her policy to turn around small boats in the Channel and send them back to France following a letter from the government’s legal department.
The refugee pushback policy has now been officially withdrawn, just days before it was due to be assessed in a judicial review at the High Court.
In the autumn, the Home Office granted Border Force officials the power to stop migrant vessels in UK waters, and force them to return to France.
The refugee charity Care4Calais joined forces with the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Channel Rescue and Freedom from Torture, to challenge the Home Office policy, with a hearing set for May 3.
In January, Patel said pushing back boats was “absolutely still policy” when she gave evidence to the Lords justice and home affairs committee.
She has repeatedly insisted there was a legal basis for the policy, despite introducing express powers to turn back boats in the Nationality and Borders Bill on the basis there was no such existing legal power.
Earlier this month, Boris Johnson put the Navy in command of the English Channel – but in a letter on Sunday from the government’s legal department, Patel was notified the Ministry of Defence (MoD) did not have permission to forcibly redirect refugees back to France.
In its letter, the legal department said the policy and procedures had been withdrawn, and that the MoD joint commander had not had permission to authorise the use of turnaround tactics.
Jeremy Bloom, lead solicitor on the case at Duncan Lewis Solicitors said: “PCS first put the Home Office on notice that this policy was unlawful in November 2021. It took until 11 April 2022 for the government to disclose the policy under challenge, and even then, much of it was confidential to the parties in the proceedings.
“Now, 14 days after that disclosure, this inhumane policy has been withdrawn. We are certain the Home Secretary has withdrawn the policy because she knew she would lose in court if she went to trial. This is a good day for vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers and for the Border Force officials that were under great pressure from the Home Secretary to put their lives and the lives of refugees at risk.”
A press statement from the four charities said: “The secretary of state for the home department [Patel] has determined that: the policy and procedures, which are the subject of the ongoing litigation, are withdrawn; if a decision were taken to use turnaround tactics in the future, it would only be after a full consideration of all relevant matters, including the evolving nature of the small boats threat, migrant behaviour and organised criminal activity; and new policies, guidance and operational procedures would need to be formulated at that point.”
Zoe Gardner, policy and advocacy manager at The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants told The Big Issue: “What our society needs are fair and effective asylum rules that provide welcome for people fleeing danger. Instead what we’ve seen from this government is a raft of cruel, dangerous and absurd measures that serve purely as PR cannon fodder, and do nothing to ensure safety for those fleeing harm.
“Pushbacks were part and parcel of this inhumane and reckless approach which could have cost lives at the altar of this government’s headline-chasing, so it’s a huge relief that the PCS union and refugee charities have forced a government climbdown.
“Now as the Borders Bill continues to pass through parliament, we urge peers and the public to continue challenging government’s cruel and divisive anti-refugee plans, and support the growing movement for refugee welcome here.”
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka called the verdict a “humiliating climbdown by the government” and “stunning victory for Home Office workers and for refugees” against a “morally reprehensible” policy.
He added: “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.”
In a tweet, Care4Calais said: “It is a shame that it took a legal challenge from us and others to bring it to an end. It is now clear that the pushbacks policy was only ever another example of this government trying to score political points by bullying vulnerable people who simply need our help.”
A Home Office spokesperson told The Big Issue: “The entire government is united in our efforts to prevent these lethal crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs exploiting people.
“It is right that we consider all safe and legal options to stop these unnecessary journeys, including turning boats around.
“As we have set out previously, this tactic fully complies with both domestic and international law, however, there are extremely limited circumstances when you can safely turn boats back in the English Channel.”
It comes as the Nationality and Borders Bill reaches its final stages in parliament, with the House of Lords having twice rejected parts of the bill which would breach the 1951 Refugee Convention, and criminalise people who attempt or manage to reach the UK irregularly without visas.
Migrant rights campaigning groups are now preparing to challenge the Rwanda plan, after the government announced its intention to deport asylum seekers to offshore processing centres in the East African nation, in a move akin to Australia’s refugee system.
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