UK calls on France to turn back migrant boats in Channel amid record crossings

8 August 2020, 10:19

More migrant boats were intercepted in the Channel at dawn on Saturday
More migrant boats were intercepted in the Channel at dawn on Saturday. Picture: PA

By Ewan Somerville

Britain is to demand France cracks down harder on migrant boats and could deploy the Royal Navy after a record number of Channel crossings.

Immigration Minister Chris Philp will meet French counterparts next week in a push to eventually shut down the Calais-to-Britain route.

He will call for migrants caught trying to cross the Channel to be fingerprinted and face “real consequences”, including deportation or being taken into custody for breaking the law.

The Coastguard and Border Force have dealt with more migrants in the busy sea stretch this morning during more calm conditions, as the current 2020 total topped 4,000 - nearly double the previous year.

Meanwhile, schools minister Nick Gibb said on Saturday the Government was looking at the possibility of using boats to prevent migrants reaching Dover.

READ MORE: More than 130 migrans arrive in UK across Channel on Friday

READ MORE: Heavily pregnant woman among record 235 migrants intercepted in one day

Border Force officials shepherded migrants back to the UK on Saturday morning
Border Force officials shepherded migrants back to the UK on Saturday morning. Picture: PA

The south coast MP told BBC Breakfast ministers were “looking at how we use maritime assets to prevent people from crossing the Channel because a: it's dangerous and b: it's illegal and the Government's determined that we're going to restore legality to our immigration system and to prevent people from making that dangerous crossing.”

The Home Office said it is possible the Royal Navy could be brought in to patrol the Channel's migrant traffic - a move branded “completely potty” by one Ministry of Defence source.

Dozens more migrants arrived on UK shores on Friday - with Kent County Council revealing it had taken 400 unaccompanied migrant children into its care already this year, including 60 in the first week of August. Thursday saw a new record with 235 migrants arriving.

Record numbers of migrants have crossed the Channel this week
Record numbers of migrants have crossed the Channel this week. Picture: PA

But Labour former home secretary Jack Straw said any move modelled on Australia's controversial "push-back" approach deployed against migrants from Indonesia could have deadly consequences.

"I don't think that just trying to push these people back is going to work and it will only take one of these dinghies to capsize and everybody to drown, which is perfectly feasible, for their to be a hullabaloo, including in the Conservative Party, and for the policy to have to be reversed, so I wouldn't go down that route," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"The crucial point here is the obvious one, is that it requires the co-operation of the French."

Migrant crossings have reached record levels this week
Migrant crossings have reached record levels this week. Picture: PA

Mr Philp also said he would work to bust criminal smuggling gangs organising crossings, but insisted boats intercepted by French authorities should be returned to France rather than shepherded across the Channel, citing cases of vessels just 250 yards off the French coast not being turned back.

“We need to intercept those who manage to leave France and return those who make it to our shores,” he wrote in The Telegraph. “That's why I will continue to push my French counterparts to look hard at interceptions at sea.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel has described the situation as "complex", saying in a tweet on Friday that the government faces "serious legislative, legal and operational barriers".

Labour has accused ministers of "failing to get to grips with the crisis".

Matt Coker, a fisherman in the channel, said it was "very common" for him to see people trying to cross the channel in inflatable boats, adding that he saw them "every calm day".

"Some of the things I've seen it defies belief," he told the BBC. "The latest thing seems to be a lot of these inflatable canoes and inflatable kayaks."

Former Border Force director general Tony Smith said dangerous crossings of the Channel by boat will continue without an agreement with the French to return migrants.

He said smugglers are exploiting a “loophole” in the law of the sea which obliges vessels to rescue people once they enter the waters of their jurisdiction.

Bella Sankey, director of the Detention Action human rights campaign, described the possibility of boats being forced back into French waters as "an unhinged proposal" which would be met with legal challenges.

She told the PA news agency: "It's unlawful, it's really dangerous and could seriously risk human life. From anyway you look at it it's a terrible idea and I don't think it would actually get off the ground.

"I think it's really disingenuous and irresponsible of ministers to be even suggesting this. It's more of the same, pretty transparent grandstanding to score political points while not actually coming up with any sensible or workable proposals to prevent the chaos from escalating.

"If they did try and go down the route of push-backs at sea, absolutely they would face legal challenges."