The Home Secretary has insisted efforts to tackle migrant crossings are about “saving lives and stopping people drowning”.
Priti Patel defended her department’s policies as it is feared as many as three people could be missing at sea after a boat tried to cross waters from France to the UK earlier this week.
She also told the Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday: “We don’t want to see people dying at sea.
“We want to stop people drowning at sea. I can’t emphasise this enough.
“Only yesterday there was a loss of life in the Channel.”
When asked if the tactic – which allows Border Force officers to turn migrant boats around at sea back towards France – met human rights and maritime laws and whether she was comfortable that it did not put lives at risk, she repeatedly insisted this had a “legal basis”, adding: “None of this is illegal. So let me just emphasise that, none of this is illegal at all.”
The rescue operation, involving Border Force, RNLI lifeboats and the coastguard, began on Monday afternoon near the port town of Harwich.
But an “extensive search” for a third man was called off at around 2pm on Tuesday and no further searches are understood to be ongoing.
The PA news agency understands the two men brought ashore told rescue crews there were initially five people on board when the boat set off from France on Saturday and two fell overboard at the weekend. By the time the boat entered the UK search zone of international waters, around 30 miles off the coast of Essex where the rescue took place, one other person was also unaccounted for.
Sources told PA that officials cannot be certain whether anyone has died because the reports of how many people were in the boat after it entered the sea are unverified and searches have so far been unable to establish whether anyone entered the water.
It is understood this boat had not been subject to a Border Force turnback operation prior to the incident.
The incident prompted an outcry from campaigners and aid charities.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “Tragically, this is not the first time desperate people have gone missing attempting the dangerous journey across the seas to Britain in search of safety.
“The sad reality is that unless this Government fundamentally changes its approach by committing to an ambitious expansion of safe routes for those in need of protection, the lives of ordinary men, women and children will be at risk of being lost in this way.”
British Red Cross chief executive Mike Adamson described the incident as “heartbreaking”, adding: “An incident like this doesn’t happen unless people are taking desperate risks. Every one of us deserves to live in safety, and not have to make dangerous crossings in their search for it.
“There are no simple answers but we urge the Government to take advantage of its plans to reform the asylum system by instilling in it the most basic values of kindness and compassion.”
The Home Office described the incident as a “reminder of the extreme dangers of crossing the Channel in small boats” and vowed it was “determined to do everything we can to prevent people dying in the Channel”.