Campaigners said they wanted judges to declare the operations unlawful and “force the government to recognise the sanctity of life”.
A claim lodged at the Administrative Court by the Freedom from Torture group says there is “no legal basis” for the policy and that it would increase the risk of drownings in the English Channel.
Documents seen by The Independent argue for a full judicial review of the plans, after the Home Office allegedly “refused to provide a substantive response to the grounds of the legal challenge”.
The Home Office has previously refused to say whether any pushbacks have taken place, or to make public the details of the assessments behind ministers’ repeated assertions that the procedure is “safe and legal”.
Sonya Sceats, the chief executive of Freedom from Torture, said: “This cruel pushback policy is Boris Johnson’s latest attempt to rip up the rule book that keeps all of us safe. We should not need to launch a legal challenge to force this government to recognise the sanctity of life.
“We know from our work with torture survivors that people seeking safety usually have no choice but to travel without obtaining prior permission, whether it’s because they come from a country where they cannot apply for a passport or because the UK will not grant visas for people claiming asylum.”
Tessa Gregory, a partner at Leigh Day, said there was “no basis in domestic law” for pushbacks.
“The policy places the UK in breach of its obligations under the Refugee Convention and Human Rights Act,” she added.
“In light of the risk to life arising from any use of the policy – and given that more than 25,000 people crossed the Channel to the UK so far this year – we have filed judicial review proceedings against the home secretary, which ask the court to declare the pushback policy unlawful.”
Freedom from Torture alleges that pushbacks amount to the government authorising unlawful conduct by Border Force officers and contravene the 1951 Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Tragedy emphasises dangers of Channel crossings, says immigration minister
The group says that existing enforcement powers, under the 1971 Immigration Act, do not allow boats to be forced out of British waters, and that there is no basis for pushbacks in domestic law.
The legal challenge is one of several being mounted by charities and campaign groups.
Care4Calais, Channel Rescue, and the PCS Union, which represents Border Force staff, have also announced action but not yet lodged claims in court.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the policy was “unlawful, unworkable and above all morally reprehensible”.
“Our Border Force members are aghast at the thought they will be forced to implement such a cruel and inhumane policy,” he added. “If the government does not abandon this appalling approach, we will pursue all legal avenues including a judicial review.”
The legal challenge comes after a House of Lords committee wrote to the home secretary saying it was “not convinced” that the plans were safe or lawful.
“We are not aware that the government have published any arguments to substantiate the claim that a legal basis currently exists,” said a letter published on Wednesday.
The previous day, MPs voted against an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill that would have prevented the powers from being “used in a manner or in circumstances that could endanger life at sea”.
The proposal, brought by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) chair Harriet Harman, was defeated by 313 votes to 235, while a series of other amendments to strengthen protections around pushbacks did not go to a vote.
In a report on the borders bill, the JCHR found that planning to push migrant boats back to France was unlawful and would put lives at risk.
It said that the new laws, which would grant Border Force staff partial immunity from prosecution if migrants drowned during pushbacks, contained several unlawful clauses. It also raised questions over how effective the laws were likely to be.
The committee said the proposals must be scrapped or changed, but the bill passed through the House of Commons with the most controversial provisions unchanged on Wednesday.
The Independent understands that complex rules imposed by the Home Office to prevent the operations violating international law mean that pushbacks can only happen in a certain area of the Channel, and if numerous conditions are met.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “As part of our ongoing operational response and to prevent further loss of life at sea, we continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options to find ways of stopping small boats making this dangerous and unnecessary journey. These all comply and are delivered in accordance with both domestic and international law.”
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/channel-boat-pushbacks-legal-challenge-b1973638.html First legal challenge launched against Priti Patel’s plans to force migrant boats back to France