A controversial move to “push back” migrants crossing the English Channel “courts disaster”, a former director of public prosecutions has warned.
It would take just one tragedy resulting from the high-risk tactic to “shame” the nation before the world, said independent crossbench peer Lord Macdonald of River Glaven.
Casting doubt on the legality of the plan to turn small boats around at sea, he also argued it was likely to be unworkable.
Lord Macdonald, who headed the Crown Prosecution Service from 2003 to 2008, made his critical comments as the House of Lords continued its detailed scrutiny of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which seeks to curb English Channel crossings and change how asylum claims are processed.
The legislation includes the power to turn away vessels carrying migrants from the UK.
It has been estimated more than 1,300 people crossed the English Channel to the UK on board small boats in January, more than six times the number who succeeded in making the hazardous trip in the same month last year.
More than 28,300 people made the crossing in 2021, triple the number for 2020.
Opposing the turnaround tactic, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven said: “There appears to be a serious risk that push backs would be inconsistent with certain international legal obligations which the United Kingdom has entered into.
“This is because they may easily conflict with the right of those fleeing persecution to seek asylum.
“They may easily conflict with the prohibition on collective expulsion. They may easily conflict with the duty to render assistance to those in distress at sea.”
He added: “They also raise the specter of other rights violations, including violation of the right to life.
“This is because they are likely to be extremely dangerous maneuvers with a high risk of damage, injury or even drowning.
“Those who are familiar with the English Channel know that it is not a hospitable place. And we all know the craft used by these refugees are flimsy and unseaworthy. So this is a policy, if it were ever to be implemented, that courts disaster.
“It would take just one tragedy to expose this and I would assume to shame our country before the world.”
Lord Macdonald went on: “The policy is probably unworkable for two reasons. Firstly, boats can only be returned to French territorial waters with France’s consent, which has not been forthcoming and is very unlikely to be forthcoming in the future.
“Secondly, and some may say to their credit, it seems quite unlikely that Border Force officers would agree to implement it.”
Responding, Home Office minister Baroness Williams of Trafford said: “Safety of life at sea will remain the priority for any interceptions of small boats crossing the Channel and always in compliance with international obligations in the context of maritime safety.”
She added: “Trained officers deployed to deliver tactics using these powers will also be operating within a clear set of procedures which are regularly reviewed and designed to ensure that no actions are taken that endanger lives.”