PRITI Patel is seeking to introduce immunity for Border Force officials in the event that a refugee drowns while small boats are being pushed back into French waters in the Channel.
A provision in the Home Secretary’s Nationality and Borders Bill states that officials would “not be liable any criminal or civil proceedings for anything done” while they are turning small boats around that are carrying refugees seeking asylum in the UK.
Border Force staff are currently being trained to employ “turn-around” tactics at sea that would force small boats back into French waters.
The proposals of the tactics – also included in the bill – have been rejected by the French government with the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin saying that “safeguarding human lives at sea takes priority over considerations of nationality, status and migratory policy”.
The Borders Bill is currently at the committee stage where it is examined line-by-line and gives an opportunity for changes to be made to the wording or for new clauses to be added.
The Tory government is seeking to stem the rise in the number of migrants entering the UK via small boats with more than 17,000 already having made the crossing this year – double the number in 2020.
Should the bill pass into law, anyone entering the UK via an illegal route such as by a small boat crossing, could have their claim for asylum rejected and even receive a jail sentence as well as having no recourse to public funds and have family members barred from joining them.
The provision in the Nationality and Borders Bill states: “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.”
Migrant Voice, an organisation seeking to empower migrants to speak out, said it is “extremely concerned” about the proposal, adding: “This, alongside many other parts of the [Borders Bill], is dangerous and wrong.”
However, the provision is not guaranteed to protect staff from prosecution under maritime or domestic laws, according to immigration barrister Colin Yeo.
“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,” Yeo told the Guardian.
The UN Convention on the law of the sea says that nations are required to give assistance to “any person found at sea in danger of being lost” and “proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress”.
Home Office sources have indicated that they are seeking to protect Border Force guards from prosecution.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “As part of our ongoing response to these dangerous crossings, we continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options for stopping small boats.
“All operational procedures used at sea comply and are delivered in accordance with domestic and international law.
“We will fix the broken asylum system through our new plan for immigration, break the business model of people smugglers who put lives at risk and welcome people through safe and legal route.”
SNP immigration spokesperson at Westminster Anne McLaughlin (above) spoke at the SNP conference when the party voted to reject the bill.
She said: “By voting through this regressive bill, the Tories have shown they have zero compassion and are refusing to play their part on the global stage in supporting refugees.
“There has been widespread concern from MPs and charities about this bill but the Tory government has ploughed ahead with legislation that breaches the UK’s international obligations. This regressive bill is a full-frontal assault on the Refugee Convention and it must be abandoned.”