Home Secretary Priti Patel sanctions tactics to turn back migrants boats in Channel

ITV News Correspondent Juliet Bremner reports on the new tactics from government over migrant crossings

The Home secretary has reportedly sanctioned new tactics to redirect migrant boats in the Channel back to France amid crunch talks over crossings.

Priti Patel has ordered officials to rewrite maritime laws to allow Border Force to turn boats around, forcing them to be dealt with by French authorities, according to reports.

It comes following a G7 interior minister’s meeting on Wednesday, during which Ms Patel told her French counterpart that the British public “expect to see results” from French efforts to prevent ongoing migrant crossings.

Members of Border Force are being given special training to handle migrant boats, but would only deploy the “pushback” tactics when deemed practical and safe to do so, according to a number of newspapers.

Reports suggested such operations were likely to be restricted to sturdier, bigger migrant boats and only used in “very limited circumstances”.

Boris Johnson's official spokesperson did not confirm the plans, but said the government was looking at a "range of safe and legal options" to deal with migrant Channel crossings.

A group of migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, aboard a Border Force vessel. Credit: PA

Asked whether plans to send boats back to France had been approved by the PM, the spokesman said: "Without getting into operational matters, as part of our ongoing response we continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options to find ways of stopping small boats making this dangerous and unnecessary journey."

He added: "I think Border Force have a range of safe and legal options available to them to deploy, I'm not going to comment on operational tactics in more detail."

The suggestion has prompted an outcry from aid charities and campaigners who branded the plan "cowardly" and "cruel" and one which could risk the lives of migrants, while the legality of the tactic has been called into question.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin hit back at the home secretary's plan to use turnaround tactics, saying France would not accept any practices which breach maritime laws and that the country would not be subjected to financial blackmail.

Earlier this week government sources confirmed Ms Patel told MPs she was prepared to withhold millions of pounds of cash promised to France to help step up patrols unless an improvement in the number of migrants intercepted by French authorities is seen.

The pair met on Wednesday to discuss the migrant crossings during the three-day G7 interior minister's meeting at Lancaster House in London.

A Government source said the meeting was "constructive", adding: "The Home Secretary was clear with the French interior minister that the British public expect to see results."

But less than 24 hours later, according to translations of his posts on Twitter, Mr Darmanin said: "France will not accept any practice contrary to maritime laws, or financial blackmail."

He said he had made it clear to his equivalent Ms Patel that the arrangements with Britain must remain, adding: "The friendship between our two countries deserves better than postures which harm cooperation between our services."

Prime Minister Johnson's official spokesman rejected the claims of "financial blackmail" and said the Government has "provided our French counterparts significant sums of money previously, and we've agreed another bilateral agreement backed by millions of pounds".

He added: "I don't think any single approach is going to solve this challenge, which sees criminal gangs target some of the most vulnerable people, and we want to work with our French counterparts, and indeed, the wider EU, on a range of options to address this long-standing problem.

"We are content that the tactics that our Border Force staff, our trained Border Force staff, are using are safe and legal."

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Johnson said efforts to stop the crossings depended “to a large extent” on the ability of the French authorities.

Home Secretary Priti Patel Credit: Ian West/PA

According to the Home Office, 785 migrants arrived in the UK on Monday after making the journey from France in small boats, with several young children and a baby among them.

This is the second highest daily total of the year, following the single-day record of 828 people set last month.

The crossings continued on Tuesday and Wednesday during the better weather conditions, with boats arriving at Dover and others being towed on to beaches along the south coast.

The PM was asked in Prime Minister's Questions when he'd authorise Border Force to turn back boats which attempt to cross the Channel illegally.

After Tory MPs voiced their approval of colleague Lee Anderson's request, Mr Johnson said he "shares the indignation and the frustration" at human traffickers who run the crossings.

The prime minister stopped short of confirming the strategy would be used, saying the best way is to ensure boats do not leave French shores.

"But clearly, he added, "as time goes on and this problem continues, we're going to have to make sure we use every possible tactic at our disposal."

Labour said the fact proposals were being considered to turn boats around in the world’s busiest shipping channel shows "how badly" the home secretary has "lost control of this situation".

He said sending boats back to France would be "dangerous and risks lives", adding: "The home secretary has failed to tackle the vile criminal gangs who are profiting from people smuggling."

Earlier this year, the UK and France announced an agreement to more than double the number of police patrolling French beaches.

It was the second pledge of its kind in a year, in a bid to stop small boats from leaving France.

As part of the deal, the government pledged to give France £54 million to support its efforts to stop small boat crossings.

More than 13,000 people have now made the crossing to the UK in 2021, according to data compiled by ITV News.

According to the UK Government’s clandestine channel threat commander Dan O’Mahoney, efforts so far have prevented more than 10,000 migrant attempts, led to almost 300 arrests and secured 65 convictions.