Newly obtained video evidence by the Lighthouse Reports, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and The Guardian reveals dangerous pull-back manoeuvres of small boats in the English Channel, and a video testimony by Human Rights Observers exposes the use of disproportionate violence at a Calais beach in France to “stop the boats” from setting sail to the United Kingdom.

An investigation of pull-backs in the Channel reveals two incidents of dangerous pull-back methods carried out by the French National Police and Gendarmerie. The videos include evidence of a UK-funded French National Police speedboat conducting a potentially deadly pull-back method of speeding up and turning around to create waves to push the small boat back towards the French coast, while also filling it with water. This manoeuvre is often conducted by the Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex, as uncovered in Euro-Med Monitor’s report “Frontex: Accountability Declined”.

Another video provides evidence of the French Gendarmerie Maritime pulling up to a small boat, an officer holding out a bottle of pepper spray aimed at the passengers while yelling “stop”, and ramming the speedboat into the small boat. Witness statements from seven passengers trying to cross the English Channel in a small boat in January indicate that these are not the only dangerous pull-back methods conducted by French law enforcement. The witnesses’ small boat was punctured at sea by French law enforcement, leading to the boat sinking and its 46 passengers having to swim back to shore—a 10-minute swim that could easily have been deadly. The case has now been brought in front of the French human rights ombudsman. This latter practice of puncturing boats was also confirmed by French lifeguards from the SNSM, when a crew submitted a complaint in August 2023 about French law enforcement instructing them to deflate small boats if encountered to prevent their departure, even if passengers were already aboard. 

   We left our country for human rights. They behave towards us as if we were animals   

Ali, an asylum seeker

 Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor finds that the practice of pull-backs by French law enforcement is de facto push-backs by the UK. According to the Guardian, French authorities previously refused to conduct interceptions in the Channel as it would breach international maritime law. However, France has seemingly abandoned its principles in return for a not insignificant investment of 500 million pounds over the next three years to “stop the boats”, in addition to the 700 million pounds already invested in externalisation over the past 10 years.

The practice of pull- and push-backs potentially violates several human rights. European and international laws include the prohibition of collective expulsion, the right to leave, the right to an effective remedy, and the right to freedom from torture, inhuman, and degrading treatment. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture stated at the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council, “The use of force for no purpose other than to deter or to prevent persons from entering a State’s territory cannot be considered lawful, necessary or proportionate and, therefore, may well amount to ill-treatment or even torture” and in the worst cases, denial of the right to life. We recall how the UK Coastguard violated international law by ignoring and downgrading 999 calls from small boats in the dates leading up to the mass drowning in November 2021, showing a blatant disregard for those risking their lives to claim asylum in the UK.

Currently residing in Calais at the UK-French border, I bear witness to the wide range of deterrence measures implemented by French law enforcement reflective of a wider policy of deterrence and prevention of departures. I am present at a humanitarian distribution in Calais, for instance, when a man named Ali* and his friends approach me, wanting to share testimonies of a violent encounter they had that morning with the police. Ali and his friends show me the bruises that they are left with as a result of the encounter.

The group of 55 people, including two women and a child, had already boarded a small boat and were in the shallow waters when law enforcement arrived at the beach in Calais. Ali recounts how members of law enforcement entered the water and threatened the passengers with cutting up the boat if they turned on its motor to cross the Channel. As the group had been disembarked, they were now desperately trying to get back to their boat before it was cut open by law enforcement. The officers were blocking the group’s access to the boat by firing teargas and hitting anyone within reach of their batons. The group had tried to take videos to document the violent encounter, but, Ali states, “When we film them they behave normally.” Hence, the videos only provide a glimpse of the violence and intimidation used by French law enforcement.

Ali recounts how law enforcement had called for more canisters of teargas, which were also quickly emptied. As more members of law enforcement arrived, the group started fleeing, as the video shows, and two jeeps chased the group down the beach. Ali and his friends want their experience to be shared with the world. “This is not human rights,” Ali tells me. “We left our country for human rights. They behave towards us as if we were animals. Therefore, we want only justice.”

The events at the beach on the morning of 15 December 2023 are yet another piece of evidence of the dangerous border management financed by the UK. The pressure to stop boats from departing has resulted in the disproportionate use of violence at the beach by French law enforcement, with the behaviour of law enforcement posing a disproportionate risk for the passengers at the beach, plus interventions against boats already at sea resulting in an increased risk of capsizing. According to Utopia56, a record-setting high of 3,468 persons crossed the Channel between 1 January to 19 March 2024—a period of time which also set the record for highest number of lethal incidents. In this period alone, four incidents resulted in deaths, compared to five incidents in 2023 (30,000 crossings) and four in 2022 (45,000 crossings).

European countries must not resort to abandoning human rights principles as an act of deterrence, as seen in the UK, which seeks to implement the “Illegal Migration Bill” and house asylum seekers in the prison-like Bibby Stockholm, violating numerous international and human rights laws, and the French government’s policy of harassing people on the move and obstructing their right to adequate shelter and water. Despite previous calls to end the deadly border regime (“Policy of ‘zero fixation points’ is root of countless human rights violations” and CommemorAction), and the fact that UK-funded violations of international law and human rights do not begin or end at the beach or in the English Channel, the violations in Calais remain an everyday practice of “border management” there.

I document the violent evictions of make-shift camps every other day in Calais, as well as the seizure and destruction of shelters, while WaSH organisations like CalaisFoodCollective and Roots report on the French government’s seizure of vital water points in the camps of Calais and Grande-Synthe. France’s government not only refuses to provide adequate water supplies and shelter for people on the move, but actively obstructs these human rights in a grand scheme of harassment and deterrence to “stop the boats” from arriving in the UK.

Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor repeats its calls for the English and French governments to respect the human rights of all persons on their territories, and for France not to abandon these principles for economic gain and good relations with the UK. While the English and French governments might argue that these acts of violence and breaches of law and morals are in the name of protecting those seeking to cross the Channel from being put at risk by smugglers and traffickers during a dangerous journey, it is the border regime itself that forces displaced persons to undertake dangerous journeys to seek asylum in the first place. This border (mis)management potentially constitutes a greater violation of human rights and danger to the lives of those seeking to claim asylum in the UK than that of smugglers and traffickers, especially with the new evidence of pull-backs, punctures, and downgrading of distress calls from small boats in the English Channel. Euro-Med Monitor hence reiterates its call for the end of this deadly “border management” policy, and for the enabling of safe routes for people to exercise their right to seek asylum.

*Name has been changed to protect witness.