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Walls in the Channel? Illegal, immoral, impractical, impossible

This week’s eye-raising idea from the Home Office once again reveals a government sometimes clueless about basic shipping realities

The only thing that could make the demand for a ‘wall’ in the English Channel anymore risible would have been the strident assertion that Mexico is going to pay for it. Thankfully, British politics isn’t quite there yet

IF THE Financial Times was not a publication so steeped in gravitas, one would be tempted to dismiss this week’s headline — ‘UK considers floating walls in Channel to block asylum seekers’ — as another all-too-telling spoof from matchless satirical website NewsThump.

But it soon emerged, to extensive incredulity, that Priti Patel’s Home Office really had sounded out a number of industry groupings with exactly that idea.

The story capped a week in which the political kites flown included the internment of refugees on Ascension Island or dumping them on utterly unsuitable disused offshore installations. 

It seems those looking for other uses for an outcrop of volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic or a mothballed oil rig several hours’ helicopter flight time away from Aberdeen need look no further than Whitehall.

The calls are said to have originated in a blue-sky thinking, brainstorming session among civil servants, one of them rejoicing in the threateningly grandiloquent job title of Clandestine Channel Threat Commander.

Shipping trade associations were asked what options exist for ‘marine fencing and other water-based technologies that would inhibit passage to UK territorial waters’ while at the same time remaining ‘rapidly deployable and rapidly removable’.

The use of such devices would be against the law.

As Maritime UK politely pointed out, it would be in flat contravention of the terms of the International Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea, which provides that lives at sea should never be jeopardised in any fashion whatsoever.

It would also entail a torrent of lawsuits emanating from the owners of French fishing boats and pleasure craft, although this is presumably the sort of trifling bagatelle that only breaches international agreements in a limited and specific way.

The use of such devices would be immoral. It is not illegal to cross the Channel in a dinghy and it is not illegal to seek asylum in Britain. As the Maersk Etienne case underlined, human beings do have human rights.

The use of such devices would be impractical. The Channel is quite literally is the world’s busiest shipping lane, and the potential for disruption is obviously enormous.

It is not even clear that a Heath Robinson contraption of this ilk is a runner from a technical standpoint. To the best of our knowledge, appropriate equipment has yet even to be devised.

Time and time again — need we mention the Brexit ferry-company-with-no-ferries procurement fiasco and Dominic Raab’s unawareness of the centrality of Dover-Calais to UK trade? — this government has revealed itself sometimes clueless about basic shipping realities.

The only thing that could make the demand for a wall in the Channel any more risible would have been the strident assertion that Mexico is going to pay for it. Thankfully, British politics isn’t quite there yet.

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