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The Home Office faces legal action over its proposals to turn small boats around at sea in a tactic which campaigners warn could put lives at risk. Figures compiled by the PA news agency show that 28,300 people crossed the Dover Strait aboard small boats in 2021, three times the number recorded in 2020.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) – whose members include about 80 percent of the Border Force officials who would be tasked with implementing the “pushbacks” – and the charity Care4Calais have filed an application for judicial review on the policy.

They intend to challenge the lawfulness of redirecting boats out of UK waters and back to France.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka told PA: “The legality of the pushbacks policy is in serious question, and it is right that the court decides whether it is unlawful to turn back Channel boats.

“We cannot have a situation where our members could be open to potential civil and criminal action for implementing a policy that they do not agree with and know is not safe.

“Although we are hoping for a positive outcome from the legal proceedings, people should be in no doubt PCS strongly opposes this policy, on moral and humanitarian grounds, and we will not rule out industrial action to prevent it being carried out.”

Pushbacks are the forcible turning around of boats carrying refugees to stop them reaching a country’s border.

The Government is considering a number of options to tackle the issue of migrant Channel crossings and has invited businesses to a non-disclosure agreement-bound meeting with the hope of hearing “innovative ideas”.

Ms Patel has called in scientific advisers as the Home Office explores the use of X-rays and other medical checks on asylum seekers in a bid to stop what the Home Secretary describes as grown men “masquerading as children” on applications.

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Clare Moseley, founder of the refugee charity Care4Calais, said the proposed policy deprioritises the UK’s duty under domestic and international law to save lives at sea.

She added: “It is for good reason that this duty is a cornerstone of international maritime law. If eroded, I fear it will enable the UK to devalue lives at sea.

“It risks opening the gates to the horrific scenes we are seeing in the Mediterranean.”

A Home Office spokesperson told the PA news agency: “As part of our ongoing operational response and to prevent further loss of life at sea, we continue to test a range of safe and legal options to stop small boats making this dangerous and unnecessary journey.

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“These all comply and are delivered in accordance with both domestic and international law.

“Our New Plan for Immigration will also overhaul the broken asylum system and reduce many of the historic pull factors.”

The Home Office continues to explore the options in its bid to halt crossings by thousands of people from France aboard small boats.

Despite the Home Secretary’s pledge to make crossings an “infrequent phenomenon” by spring last year, more than 36,000 people have succeeded in reaching UK shores in the past two years.

Care4Calais reports that pushbacks have led to deaths in other countries and the charity does not want the measure to turn the English Channel into a graveyard.

It warns pushbacks at sea will lead to more deaths in the Channel where 27 people lost their lives in November.

Dover MP Natalie Elphicke, writing for the Conservative Home website, describes “a booming international criminal business” in Channel crossings with “ever greater numbers of illegal craft coming in day after day”.

She is calling for an end to small boat crossings and the prevention of people smugglers risking further deaths in the Channel.

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