Relations between London and Paris plunged to a new low as the UK was accused of breaking maritime law and of “blackmail” – after a threat to also withhold funds for France to beef up coastal patrols.
The clash came as leading lawyers, a senior Tory MP, the union representing Border Force officers and a former chief of the naval staff all agreed the push back policy is unworkable without French cooperation.
Lord West, the ex-naval chief, also warned the plan – which Ms Patel hopes to launch within weeks – could easily end up with “someone being killed”.
Nicolas Pillerel, diplomatic advisor to the French interior minister, echoed the fear, saying: “Intercepting boats in the sea when they don’t want to be escorted is extremely dangerous.
“And this can lead to tragedies. It risks the Channel becoming a new theatre of human tragedies, as we have already seen in other seas,” – pointing to mass drownings in the Mediterranean and Aegean.
However, The Independent understands the home secretary is determined to plough ahead, believing French boats will have no choice but to cooperate if boats are forced into French waters.
Ms Patel intends to speak personally to any Border Force commanders who have assessed that migrant boats could can be pushed back, to make clear she fully supports that decision.
Training has been going on for 18 months and is expected to finish by the end of September, including the Border Force practising how to physically bump boats backwards.
The move, which comes after Boris Johnson ordered Ms Patel to curb the crossings, sparked a furious reaction after the French interior minister met the Home Secretary on Wednesday.
Gérald Darmanin tweeted: “France will not accept any practice that is contrary to the law of the sea, nor any financial blackmail.”
The minister said he told Ms Patel that “Great Britain must stick to its commitments”, adding: “The friendship between our two countries merits better than posturing which harms the co-operation between our services.”
The Home Office says it had legal advice that boats can be turned back in some circumstances, but it is thought that would require no breaking of any maritime laws, or placing of passengers at risk.
Colin Yeo, a specialist immigration lawyer, said it was a “sounds tough but will never be implemented policy”, akin to earlier UK threats to “install wave machines or a floating fence”.
Pushback had been used by the Italian authorities in the Mediterranean, and by Australia and the US governments, but there had always been another nation willing to accept refugees back.
James Turner, a QC specialising in shipping disputes, agreed that turning back migrant boats in the middle of the Channel would “not be lawful under international law”.
Lucy Moreton, of the ISU union for Border Force staff, called the idea “dead in the water”, saying: “In practical terms, if this happened even once I’d be surprised.
“You also need the consent of the French to do it because, as you turn the vessel back towards France – when it crosses the median line – it has to be intercepted and rescued by the French, and it appears the French will simply not engage in this.”
Ms Moreton told The Independent that officers were concerned migrants and refugees will “panic’ and put themselves at even greater risk, now the policy has been made public.
Tim Loughton, a Conservative member of the Commons home affairs committee, agreed the plan is unworkable, saying: “In practice it’s just not going to happen.”
And Lord West, the the former first sea lord, said: “People forget how dangerous the sea is. It’s flat, calm and people have been coming across, but it doesn’t take much suddenly for people to go into the water and drown.”
Mr Johnson’s spokesman refused to discuss the new approach, saying: “I’m not going to get into the operational tactics used by Border Force staff.”
However, he denied any plan to rewrite maritime laws and brushed off the French protests and refusal to cooperate, insisting the UK is “confident” the policy will work.
The spokesman said: “It’s right that our Border Force has the right range of tactics to address this problem. They will make sure it is tested and that it is carried out by trained Border Force staff and that it is safe and legal.”
More than 12,500 migrants have arrived from France so far this year – including 1,500 in the last week alone – a sharp rise from around 8,000 in 2020.
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