The Home Secretary Priti Patel has officially abandoned controversial plans to turn asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats back towards France days before a legal review.
Government lawyers confirmed the pushback policy had been “withdrawn” after Boris Johnson put the Royal Navy in charge of operations to tackle small boat crossings from France to the UK.
The Prime Minister in a speech earlier this month announcing plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda signaled that the pushback policy would be dropped because after consulting with Border Force, law enforcement, military and maritime experts it was clear the tactic could only be used safely in “Extremely limited circumstances”.
But Ms Patel still refused to say pushback was off the table, telling reporters while returning from a visit to Rwanda: “We rule nothing out, we can not rule anything out. I have always said. I get exhausted from saying it we have to keep all options on the table. ”
In a letter to the Administrative Court, Government lawyers said the Ministry of Defense (MoD) Joint Commander of Channel operations “has not had permission to authorize the use of turnaround tactics”.
in understands that this is because the MoD essentially refused to carry out pushbacks in the Channel.
As a result, Ms Patel has decided that “the policy and procedures which are the subject of the ongoing litigation are withdrawn” and the Home Office will pay the claimants’ costs.
If she decides to use turnaround tactics in the future it would only come after “full consideration” of “the evolving nature of the small boats threat, migrant behavior and organized criminal activity”, and that new policies, guidance and operational procedures would need to be formulated at that point ”, the letter said.
A Government spokesman insisted Whitehall was “united in our efforts to prevent these lethal crossings” but reiterated there are only “extremely limited circumstances when you can safely turn boats back into the English Channel”.
Four organizations – the PCS Union, which represents Home Office workers, Care4Calais, Channel Rescue and Freedom from Torture – had brought a judicial review legal challenge on the policy, arguing that Border Force did not have the legal power to carry out the tactic.
They argued pushing back boats to France would breach asylum seekers’ rights under the Refugee Convention, and breach international law and Border Force’s duty of care to asylum seekers.
Shadow Immigration Minister Stephen Kinnock said: “The Home Secretary’s pushback policy was always completely unworkable, but she refused to listen to Border Force, her French counterparts, her Ministry of Defense colleagues and even her own lawyers. This is a humiliating climbdown.
“Priti Patel’s Home Office is a complete disaster, more concerned with chasing headlines than with the common sense solutions we need.”
It comes with Ms Patel under pressure over her radical and controversial immigration policies, including sending migrants who arrive on small boats to Rwanda for resettlement in a bid to reduce the attractiveness of crossing the Channel.
The Refugee Council on Sunday estimated that fewer than 200 out of thousands of asylum seekers who arrive in the UK across the Channel would actually be sent to the East African country under existing asylum rules.
But the Home Office insisted “we do not recognize the figures” and that the Rwanda deal was “uncapped in terms of the numbers of people who may be sent” there.
Ms Patel is also under heavy pressure from a cross party alliance in the House of Lords and some Tory MPs to ease some of the harder line measures in her Nationality and Borders Bill, which she is facing a battle to pass into law before Parliament breaks up on Thursday ahead of the Queen’s Speech and a new session next month.
Commenting on the pushbacks climbdown, PCS General Secretary, Mark Serwotka said: “There is little doubt that lives have been saved. The pushbacks maneuver 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. ”
Sonya Sceats, chief executive of Freedom from Torture, said: “We should never have had to take this Government to court in order to defend the sanctity of life – it is scandalous that it has reached this point.”
Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “I find it hard to believe that anyone within the Government thought that performing pushbacks in the Channel was a viable policy. Threatening these tactics is yet another example of this Government trying to score political points by bullying vulnerable people who simply need our help. ”
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 illegal.
“The violent forcing back of people seeking protection is abhorrent and deprives them of their right to asylum.”
This story has been updated.