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Danger in the Channel
Sensemaker audio

Danger in the Channel

Danger in the Channel

The UK’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has announced plans to authorise “pushbacks” of migrant boats in the English Channel. It is a policy condemned as dangerous and… possibly, illegal.


Claudia Williams: Hi, I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.

One story everyday to make sense of the world.

Today, danger in the English Channel.


“All of us are too much afraid because two men have hit all of us with their sticks, they are wearing black masks on their faces…”

Afghan refugee speaking to DW News

The voice you’re hearing there is of a 16-year-old Afghan boy.

“…and the one have a knife…”

Afghan refugee speaking to DW News

He was in a dinghy in Greek waters, close to the island of Lesbos.

“…they just make a hole on our boat and cut the wire which is connected with the engine.”

Afghan refugee speaking to DW News

The dinghy he was in was attacked. It could no longer be steered and its power was cut out. It was left adrift in the open sea. But the men doing this to the boy and his fellow travellers, they weren’t thugs, they were Greek coastguards. 

And what happened here wasn’t a one off. It’s something that’s been happening a lot in Greek waters. 

Sometimes, boats aren’t just left adrift, they’re forced back into Turkish waters. 

It’s a tactic known as pushbacks. 

“Before we get into the meat of this policy, it is worth saying that it is on the edges of legality, it is diplomatically toxic, and it is probably unworkable”

Channel 4 News

But it’s a widely condemned policy. It’s been branded as “simply illegal” by human rights groups. 

And the French, well, they aren’t too happy about it. 

So the question is, what’s going on in the English Channel? And why is Priti Patel pushing legal boundaries?


“At least 430 migrants crossed the English Channel yesterday according to the Home Office, a new record for a single day…”

Huw Edwards, BBC News

More than 12,500 migrants have crossed the English Channel so far this year and Priti Patel has been clear about her intentions to crack down on immigration.

“Last September this disused army barracks in Kent was re-launched as emergency accommodation for those seeking asylum… inspections found poor facilities and safety concerns, those at high risk of self-harm were placed in isolation blocks, considered unfit for habitation.”

Channel 4 News

Now: pushbacks. 

But lawyers have questioned the legal basis for the government’s plans. 

That’s because international maritime law states that ships have a clear duty to assist people in distress and who could be at risk of losing their lives. The law states that they must be rescued.

But Priti Patel has ordered officials to rewrite the UK’s interpretation of maritime laws so that Border Forces can turn small boats around.

And yet there’s one key problem in all of this.

“You can only turn back into a receiving vessel so the French must cooperate, they’ve got to have a vessel alongside willing to take the migrant vessel should we be able to turn it…”

Lucy Moreton, Immigration Services Union, speaking to ITV News

The French have to accept the boat that’s been turned around. They have to consent to the UK’s tactics. 

And that’s looking unlikely.

Last week, Priti Patel’s French counterpart tweeted, “France will not accept any practice contrary to the law of the sea, nor any financial blackmail.”

So, the French are not playing ball.

And the comment about financial blackmail? Well that’s because back in July, the Home Office agreed to pay a further £54 million towards a clampdown on small-boat crossings in the Channel.

Priti Patel has since warned that the Home Office is prepared to hold this cash back unless France does more to prevent migrants crossing the channel. 

But even if pushbacks are put into practice, there are concerns that they won’t work anyway.


“Turning a rubber dinghy around when they don’t want to be turned around and then what do you do? Tie them to you and steam into the French or do you turn them around and say off you go? Because they’ll immediately turn around again and come back and then you’ll turn them round… I mean the whole thing is just bonkers.”

Admiral Lord West speaking to ITV News

That was Admiral Lord West, the former First Sea Lord, speaking to ITV. And he’s got a point. Migrants may resort to jumping overboard in a desperate attempt not to be sent back to France, forcing the UK’s Border Force to rescue them.

But some of the British public will be pleased to see Priti Patel’s crackdown on migrant crossings. After all, it’s what a certain electorate voted for. Tighter borders.   

And specialised training has already started for the UK Border Force. They’ve been out on the Channel on jet skis, practicing push backs by circling small boats and nudging them along. The government has said they would only “deploy pushback tactics” when deemed “practical and safe to do so”. 

But the vast majority of vessels migrants find themselves in are vulnerable. 

So it’s not just a logistical question for Priti Patel, but an ethical one too. Enforcing pushbacks will put the lives of thousands of innocent people including children at greater risk. 

And while the Home Office have said they want to crack down on the smugglers profiting off desperate migrants, it’s clear that endangering lives in the middle of the sea comes at an even greater cost.

Today’s episode was written and produced by Imy Harper.