News : English Channel Migrants and Refugees: Safety of Life at Sea Comes First

London. UK. On the English south coast bordering The English Channel the number of migrants and refugees crossing from France to England seeking a better future has seen a surge this week with a period of good weather.  Today, it has been announced in the UK press that the UK Home Office is preparing for the UK Border Force to push back boats containing migrants and refugees into French waters thereby challenging international and maritime law positions for the long-standing assurance of the safety of life at sea.

As reported by The Guardian, Border Force staff are being trained in “turn around” tactics supported by ‘maritime experts’ and backed by yet unpublished supporting legal advice from the acting Attorney General, Michell Ellis, is to be applied “when it is safe to do so”.

‘When safe to do so’ has yet to be defined.

In December 2018, Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) first posed the question:”Are UK authorities ready to receive increasing numbers of migrants making the crossing, and have they taken all necessary precautions to protect the rights of those rescued at sea?

In August 2020, the charity issued an OP-ED by Professor Steven Haines, where it highlighted: “The bottom line, however, must be the protection of lives and the rights of vulnerable people; men, women, and children. That must be the principal driver, whether it be for the French authorities dealing with migrants in France, the British authorities dealing with migrants arriving in the UK, or those encountering vulnerable people in life-threatening situations at sea.”

Saving Life at Sea

Saving a life at sea is a customary humanitarian duty that has existed for hundreds of years. It is reinforced by international treaties dealing with Safety of Life at Sea, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1974 and for maritime Search and Rescue, the International Convention on Maritime Search, and Rescue (SAR), 1979.

Ignoring customary and treaty law further sets a very poor example globally and reinforces both apathy and trends for impunity in the application of established legal safeguards for persons at sea.

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On Monday 6th September, the Home Office said 785 people crossed the Channel in small boats on Monday, which was short of last month’s record daily total of 828 migrants. It has been further reported that “two hundred were prevented from crossing by the French on Monday when 742 reached the UK.”

While the issue of UK border control is at the forefront of the current situation, and the use of sea routes by criminal gangs exploiting human suffering continues, the need for people to seek places of safety and economic security is not going to diminish as the global population grows. This further notes the EU’s position on open borders and freedom of movement.

HRAS Position

As stated in August 2020, the HRAS position was: “As an established UK-registered human rights organization with an explicit mandate to cover such issues, we believe that for the moment fundamental human rights are generally being respected by authorities on both sides of the English Channel and that human rights and duties are being respected and delivered.”

Today, with the specter of policy-led push-backs of migrants and refugees by UK authorities, our position has altered to reinforce the stance and fundamental principle that, human rights apply at sea, as they do on land. This means respect for established international conventions and the long-standing maritime principle of not allowing persons to perish at sea.

HRAS is further urging an urgent review of the intent to place persons crossing the English Channel in situations where the loss of life may be a real possibility through the deliberate use of push-back tactics for political purposes.

CEO, David Hammond, commented: “Safe and legal routes for immigration alongside increased resourcing for UK border security can not be achieved at the expense of placing people’s lives in danger with dubious tactics that have seen deadly consequences in the Mediterranean, and elsewhere in the world.”

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