THREAD - Cross-Channel Migrants and International Law. Subjecting myself to some online peer review, I have tried to summarise the law, possibly condensing it beyond recognition. Corrections welcome!
There are two international legal regimes applicable to migrants crossing the Channel in boats: search and rescue (SAR) and asylum. They cannot both apply at once to the same operation.
The Channel is divided, down the middle, into two SAR zones: north (UK) and south (France). Within its zone, each is required to provide SAR services to anyone in distress, regardless of their nationality or intention.
That obligation may arise outside its own SAR zone, particularly in cooperation with another SAR authority. Rescued people must be treated humanely and delivered to a place of safety.
There is a fundamental principle of international asylum law called “non-refoulement”: an asylum-seeker cannot be disembarked at a place where – directly or indirectly – they may be subject to persecution.
This must be assessed on an individual basis, both as regards the asylum-seeker and the proposed place of disembarkation. Mass expulsions of immigrants are also not allowed, under European Human Rights law.
There is no requirement that an asylum-seeker request asylum in the first safe country in which they arrive. There is a requirement, under EU law, that that country deal with the asylum-seeker’s application, but that is a requirement operating only between states.
Turning back migrant boats in the middle of the Channel would not therefore be lawful under international law. It would also potentially endanger lives, giving rise to a SAR situation.
The European Court of Human Rights has already ruled against such a practice (where it had been adopted by the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean).
Within the limits set by international law, the UK can enforce its immigration laws up to 24 miles from its coast (or half-way across the Channel, whichever is less). Beyond 24 miles, the right to intercept migrant boats is more controversial.
A boat could be stopped to check for people-smugglers, but if none is found present, it ought to be allowed to proceed. In all cases, force should be avoided and confined to what is reasonable and necessary in the circumstances.
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