Paying France £54m to stop dangerous illegal migrant crossings 'a mockery' - Tory MP

21 July 2021, 06:17 | Updated: 21 July 2021, 20:40

By Asher McShane

The UK paying France £54 million to try and stop illegal migrants from making the perilous journey across the English Channel has been branded "a mockery" in the Commons.

Britain and France have agreed to double the number of police patrolling French beaches for the second time in a year to try and stop people crossing on small boats from northern France.

The deal comes after the number of people who have made the dangerous trip across the Channel this year passed the total for all of 2020 - with more than five months left of 2021.

430 migrants arrived on the south coast on Monday, a new record for a single day.

READ MORE: Caller from Kent gives eyewitness account of migrants landing on beach

Migrants are escorted from the beach in Dungeness, Kent yesterday
Migrants are escorted from the beach in Dungeness, Kent yesterday. Picture: Alamy

Speaking during a Home Affairs Committee hearing, Home Secretary Priti Patel said she has "absolutely" discussed with her French counterparts their obligations under international law to return migrants trying to cross the Channel to their territory.

"We have absolutely been looking at what we can do at sea in terms of maritime tactics all within the legal framework, absolutely within the legal framework, of saving lives at sea and international maritime law and the French are aware of that as well.

"They absolutely know what their responsibilities are."

However, Conservative MP Tim Laughton accused Ms Patel of being "fobbed off with excuses" by the French.

Paul Lincoln, director general of Border Force, told the committee the number of French interceptions of small boats crossing the Channel had "trebled" in a year from more than 2,100 at the end of June last year to more than 6,000 for the same period this year.

But Mr Loughton said the home secretary was allowing the French to make "a mockery" of arrangements to return migrants to French territory.

His comments came after a French naval vessel reportedly tried to hand a number of migrants to a boat carrying journalists on Tuesday.

Speaking to the committee, the Tory MP said: "International maritime lawyers gave us evidence to say that the French authorities are entitled to, and within international maritime law, to intercept boats in the water, and return of the passengers to French territory, or to allow Border Force to return the migrants to French territory of they are picked up in British territorial waters.

"Yesterday we had a French military naval vessel escorting one of the boats into British territorial waters, and then tried to hand over the occupants to a boat full of journalists."

Migrants crossing from France come ashore aboard the local lifeboat at Dungeness in Kent
Migrants crossing from France come ashore aboard the local lifeboat at Dungeness in Kent. Picture: Alamy

Mr Loughton's remarks came after the government announced it will be sending an additional £54 million to Paris to try and stem the flow of people crossing the Channel in small boats.

"This is ridiculous and it makes a mockery of it, so just giving the French more money to carry on doing what they're doing badly is not going to solve the problem," he said.

Ms Patel and French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin announced their agreement on Tuesday.

The home secretary said British people have "had enough of illegal migration and the exploitation of migrants by criminal gangs".

Under the newly-agreed package, French officers will patrol wider areas of coastline across the northern coast between Boulogne and Dunkirk and patrols will be expanded further north-west around Dieppe.

There is also to be improved coverage via surveillance technology of the coast of France and investment in infrastructure is to increase to try and bolster border security at key border crossing points along the Channel coast.

At least 287 migrants succeeded in reaching the UK on Tuesday, bringing the total for the year to at least 8,452.

This eclipses the figure for the whole of 2020, when 8,417 people crossed the Dover Strait aboard small boats.

One charity condemned the Government's handling of the issue, saying it "loses all credibility" with the new record.

Dan O'Mahoney, clandestine channel threat commander for the Home Office, said the Government "continues to take steps to tackle the unacceptable problem".

On Tuesday, a number of boats reached the UK after setting off from continental Europe, with dozens landing in Dungeness in Kent.

Many were brought to the beach aboard an RNLI lifeboat, where they were met by immigration officials.

Further along the coast, others were brought to the port of Dover by Border Force.

Tuesday's arrivals came after at least 430 people, including women and young children reached the UK on Monday, a new record for a single day.

Thousands of migrants have continued to make the trip across the Channel packed aboard often unseaworthy dinghies over the last 18 months, putting their lives at risk on one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

In October last year, a Kurdish-Iranian family, including small children, died when their migrant boat sank off the French coast.

Bella Sankey, director of charity Detention Action, said: "With today's record this Government loses all credibility in managing a safe and fair asylum system.

"Priti Patel can re-announce enhanced police cooperation with the French all day, every day, but until there is a political renegotiation to allow refugees safe passage to claim asylum at the U.K. border in France, this relatively small number of desperate people will continue risking everything for a shot at our protection.

"Ministers should stop playing fantasy politics and step up to protect lives instead."

Meanwhile, Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive at Refugee Action, said the growing number of crossings "shows the Government's get-tough-quick schemes do not work".

He added: "Criminal smugglers prey on refugees who have little choice than to put risk their lives in rickety boats because Ministers refuse to create more routes to reach safety here.

"And the Government's cruel anti-refugee Bill will do little to stop the boats. It is unworkable, unlawful and will end up an expensive disaster that criminalises people who are simply asking for our help."

He called on the Government to create safe routes and welcome 10,000 refugees a year.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, refugee and migrant rights programme director at Amnesty International UK, said the Bill will only serve to exacerbate the asylum issue.

He said: "There are important measures in this Bill to right historical injustices in British nationality law, but sadly its totality is such an abomination that it is almost beyond repair.

"Criminalising people just for trying to reach a place of safety is morally and legally indefensible. People cross the Channel and put themselves in serious danger because there are simply no safe alternatives open to them.

"Unless MPs drastically amend this Bill, we will end up with even more chaos and delay in our dysfunctional immigration system."

Mr O'Mahoney said: "There is an unacceptable rise in dangerous small boat crossings across the channel because of a surge in illegal migration across Europe.

"Today we signed a strengthened agreement with our French counterparts to increase police patrols on French beaches and enhance intelligence sharing. This joint work has already prevented over 7,500 migrants enter the UK.

"The Government continues to take steps to tackle the unacceptable problem of illegal migration through the Nationality & Borders Bill which will protect lives and break this cycle of illegal crossings.

"The Government is also continuing to return those with no legal right to remain in the UK."