LONDON — Britain will order its Border Force to turn back boats carrying migrants across the English Channel after failing to secure an agreement with France.
U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel approved the plans after struggling to get the support of her French counterpart Gérald Darmanin on Wednesday on the margins of a G7 home affairs ministers’ meeting in London, according to a U.K. official.
Legal experts have warned the move could breach international maritime law, which states that people at risk of dying at sea must be rescued. The Home Office said it had secured legal advice on redirecting small boats away from U.K. waters.
The tactic would be used “in very limited circumstances, when the Border Force says it can be,” the official said, adding: “We won’t go into details — in order that the gangsters don’t know how to avoid them.”
Patel tweeted she had held constructive talks with Darmanin, adding: “I made clear that delivering results and stopping crossings were an absolute priority for the British people.”
But in a letter to Patel dated Monday and seen by POLITICO, Darmanin said the French government continued to oppose interception. The U.K. official confirmed that the position has not changed.
“Safeguarding human lives at sea takes priority over considerations of nationality, status and migratory policy, out of strict respect for the international maritime law governing search and rescue at sea,” Darmanin wrote.
In a statement ahead of the Wednesday meeting, the French interior ministry had urged Britain “to be prudent in using methods to fight sea crossing that would not only be dangerous to men, women and children on board the boats, but that would also break international law” — warning the change “would break the spirit of mutual trust that underpins our common action until now.”
Asked about the plans during a morning broadcast round, Helen Whately, the U.K.’s care minister, said the government wants to “deter” people from crossing the Channel.
“The government looks at all the options, but a really important thing, of course, is you wouldn’t want to put people in any greater danger. They’re taking a dangerous journey as it is, and what we want to do is actually deter them from starting that journey in the first place,” she told Sky News.
According to the Home Office, U.K. authorities rescued or intercepted 456 people in 17 Channel incidents Tuesday, and 301 people as part of nine incidents Wednesday. France reported a total of 18 events over the same two days, preventing a total of 628 people from reaching the U.K.
Non, non and non
Patel’s remarks come days after she told MPs that Britain could withhold £54.2 million it has committed to pay France to help tackle Channel crossings, unless more boats are intercepted. This led to a quick response from the French interior ministry, which warned that withholding the cash would represent “a grave loss of trust” between the two countries.
In his letter, Darmanin said the increase in the number of people crossing the Channel without documents can be explained by the use of larger boats and decoy boats by people smugglers.
The French minister also rejected a proposal made by Patel in August to create a single, joint command center for the French and British coastline forces, arguing coordination “is, according to the teams themselves, good and effective,” and dubbed Patel’s idea of setting up a large-scale joint intelligence unit or Vetted Intelligence Cell “premature.”
The U.K. has been pushing for a bilateral deal with France to return asylum seekers, but Paris reminded Patel the EU is in the process of agreeing on its own asylum policy, which will take priority over bilateral negotiations.
“On the matter of readmitting migrants who have taken small boats, France still gives priority to a European solution, a process in which I hope the UK will get involved in its relations with the institutions of the European Union and other European partners,” Darmanin wrote.
“The feasibility of a very small number of ad hoc bilateral transfers, to respond to targeted situations, will be studied at technical level before we progress further.”
Illegal migration is expected to be the main topic for discussion on Thursday, the final day of the G7 meeting.
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