Since November 2018 there has been a significant increase in the number of individuals attempting to cross the English Channel illegally in small boats.
This activity represents a substantial risk to the lives of those attempting the crossing, as well as to the rescue services. Organised criminal networks are exploiting vulnerable individuals to drive profit from what is a highly dangerous activity.
As I set out to the House on 7 January, I declared a major incident on 28 December to send a clear message that we will not tolerate these life-threatening and illegal crossings. I established a Gold Command structure to co-ordinate my Department’s response to this issue.
Good progress has been made to date. The re-deployment of Border Force assets and use of aerial surveillance has substantially improved coverage in the Channel and our extensive work with our French counterparts has improved co-ordination, both on land and at sea. We have built on existing structures, such as the Centre Conjoint d’Information et de Co-ordination (CCIC), which sees Border Force and Police Aux Frontiéres working alongside law enforcement partners to exchange real-time intelligence on criminality at the border and work together to identify and dismantle criminal gangs involved in people smuggling and wider cross-border crime. The Immigration Minister attended the formal opening of CCIC with Interior Minister Christophe Castaner on 25 January and saw first-hand the efforts that both countries are making to enhance our co-operation around border security.
Through these efforts, we have managed to reduce the number of individuals attempting the crossing from around 250 in December to around 90 so far in January, with roughly half of the January attempts being intercepted by partners in France before they can make it to British waters. But even one crossing is too many and I am determined that we make further efforts to deter both the facilitators and the individuals making these crossings.
To that end, I met with Minister Castaner in London on 24 January to agree a Joint Action Plan. The plan solidifies and builds on our existing border security partnership by setting out over £6 million (€7 million) in investment for new security equipment, as well as increased CCTV coverage of ports, air surveillance and shared intelligence. We have also agreed that migrants encountered in the Channel will be taken to the nearest safe port, in accordance with international maritime law.
In addition, the plan features a mutual commitment to return more migrants to France who have used boats to illegally cross the Channel. The first of these returns took place on 24 January.
We will not allow illegal migration and its facilitators to flourish, and we will continue to work closely with France and other countries to provide a strong deterrent against these dangerous crossings. This includes making it clear that those fearing persecution should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, and my officials are looking to strengthen our inadmissibility guidance for claims made by those who have travelled here through countries that are internationally recognised as being safe.
The Joint Action Plan comes into force immediately and builds on the existing framework of co-operation set out in the Sandhurst Treaty. I am confident that it will strengthen the achievements that we have made to date and I thank our French colleagues for their collaboration in working with the United Kingdom to tackle this critical issue—protecting human life, and our border.
I will place a copy of the Joint Action Plan in the House Library.