According to an Interior Ministry official, only a “small proportion” of boats carrying asylum seekers across the Channel could be legally returned to France using controversial push-back tactics.

The department’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, was also unable to say when or if the policy – initiated with the aim of tackling the number of crossings to the UK – would be put into practice when he was questioned by MPs today.

Border force officers and ships conducted exercises to practice intercepting ships in the English Channel. (Gareth Fuller / PA)

During a lengthy exchange with the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, Mr Rycroft repeatedly insisted on the existence of a “legal basis” for the maneuver to be carried out in “certain limited circumstances” .

Border force officers had “prepared and tested” the “new maritime tactic,” he said, but it had “not yet been deployed” and that would only happen when “all the circumstances were met for allow their deployment in a secure and legal manner ”.

When asked roughly what proportion of crossings in the past six months would have met the circumstances to legally repel boats, he replied that a “small proportion”, later conceding that it would be closer to 1% than 49% but adding: “I am not I will give a number … I will not go further than …”

Pressing Mr Rycroft in a series of questions on the matter, committee member Tim Loughton said MPs were trying to establish whether the tactic would make a “significant difference” and if it “was actually going to happen” after the Minister of the Interior Priti Patel made a “big game” of the announcement a few weeks ago.

Mr Rycroft said he couldn’t answer ‘yes / no’ when asked if the tactic would be deployed ‘next week, month, year or never’, adding: ‘The moment we what we see will depend on many different factors “.

Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft was questioned by lawmakers on Wednesday.  (House of Commons / AP)
Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft was questioned by lawmakers on Wednesday. (House of Commons / AP)

He explained that it was “difficult to give a definitive answer” because it implies that border force commanders make “judgments in the moment” based on a number of factors, including the type of boat used and the size. weather report.

Mr Loughton suggested that the boats might have reached shore by the time this process is carried out, adding: “In reality it will not work”.

“I strongly disagree with this assessment,” replied Mr Rycroft, adding that he did not want to publicly provide details of the operations so as not to give the couriers who organize the boat crossings an advantage. tactical.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Director of Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International UK, said: “Home Office officials have been placed in the desperate position of having to defend ministerial policy which is dangerous for life and almost certainly illegal.

Matthew Rycroft’s responses give the impression – again – that the government announced the pushback policy for its publicity value rather than doing anything useful to meet the needs of those making these perilous crossings. .

During the hearing, Rycroft also confirmed that some 7,000 Afghan nationals, including 70 unaccompanied children, were still living in hotels after being rescued on the Kabul airlift last month and were unable to say when they could be moved to more permanent accommodation.

This is in addition to the 8,000 other asylum seekers also accommodated in hotels.

Questions were once again raised about another coronavirus outbreak at Napier Barracks in Folkestone where around 200 asylum seekers were being accommodated.

Although figures are yet to be confirmed, MEPs have learned that the number of current cases is low.

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