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Turning back migrant boats: what does the international law of the sea say?

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The Home Office has unveiled plans to use “turnback” tactics in the English Channel, with the border force compelling small boats carrying migrants to return to French waters.

The move is the latest in a series of strict immigration policies by Home Secretary Priti Patel, following the introduction of a controversial nationality and borders bill in July that seeks to criminalise arrival in the UK without permission.

The practice of turnback or pushback of migrant boats is not new. Australia, Greece and Italy have all been criticised for similar policies, with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants calling it a “cruel and deadly” practice that states must end immediately.

More than 13,500 people have crossed the English Channel so far in 2021. The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan highlights why people risk their lives making dangerous journeys in small, unsafe boats.

As the Strait of Dover is the busiest shipping route in the world, pushbacks could be extremely dangerous. Reports suggest that the UK’s turnback policy is only applicable to “sturdier, bigger migrant boats” and in “very limited circumstances”. The government says it has legal advice that allows it to do so under maritime law.

It is a fundamental and longstanding obligation of international and maritime law to render assistance to persons in distress at sea. Article........

© The Conversation

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