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House of Commons Hansard
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English Channel: Illegal Seaborne Immigration
30 January 2019
Volume 653

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered illegal seaborne immigration across the English Channel.

May I say what a joy it is to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher? I am sure that we will all benefit from your benign chairmanship. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate, and I welcome the Minister and other hon. Members present.

The debate is about the number of people who are crossing the English channel illegally—often in very small unsailable, risky craft—to get to the United Kingdom. That is extremely dangerous; it has been described by the police as like

“trying to cross the M25 at rush-hour on foot.”

It is also driven by illegal people trafficking. Far too many of those who are successful remain in the United Kingdom, whether or not their claim is justifiable.

As I understand it, in 2018, 543 asylum seekers crossed the English channel illegally, including 438 in the last few months, October to December, of 2018. I invite the Minister to confirm those figures in her response. A lot of people are making that very risky crossing and those figures account only for those who make it. I would like to know from Her Majesty’s Government if there is any estimate of the number of people who have died at sea trying to make the crossing.

The main route is across the short straits between Dover and Calais, which cover only 22 or 23 miles. Recent reports, however, say that some asylum seekers try to make an even longer crossing. In January, four Iranians were caught near Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire, having travelled across the North sea from Belgium—a journey 10 times longer than across the short straits between Dover and Calais. A lot of those people arrive along our coast, either on deserted stretches of the coastline or in small towns and villages. Their aim is to seek asylum. What concerns me and my constituents is that it is not only extremely risky activity that is dangerous to those seeking to cross the channel and to shipping, but it is effectively fuelled by horrendous people—the people traffickers—who charge those poor people a lot of money for the equipment to try to get across the channel.

There is also a security risk. The No. 1 priority of Her Majesty’s Government is to defend this nation. We do not know who those people are, where they come from or what their intentions are, and that activity needs to be stopped. The simplest way to stop it is this: if people are intercepted crossing the channel, they should be taken back to the ports from where they came, whether in France, Belgium or elsewhere.

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When I was a television reporter I lived undercover in the Sangatte camp in Calais, and spent several weeks trying to get into the UK. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend; the only way that we can stop the economic migrants—I would do exactly the same in their position, but they are economic migrants, not refugees, because they pass through many safe countries—is to break the idea that getting into Britain or Europe means they can stay there. Until we do that, the problem will go on and on.

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I could not have put it better myself; my hon. Friend is exactly right. Those people need to be taken back to France, whether they are intercepted trying to cross the channel or after they have arrived in the United Kingdom.

I would like to know what we are doing to stop that illegal people trafficking. My understanding is that two Border Force cutters are bobbing around somewhere in the English channel. I am told that two more are on the way, because we had lent them to the EU to patrol the Mediterranean. Can the Minister confirm that there are two Border Force cutters in the English channel and that two more will be added to that number, and when that will happen? I understand that Border Force has a total of five cutters and six coastal patrol vessels at its disposal. Where are all those vessels deployed and what are they doing?

The Royal Navy has a patrol vessel in the channel, but I am reliably informed by sources in the Government that the Royal Navy actually has very little to do with Border Force operations. Its deployment is therefore probably just a cosmetic exercise by Her Majesty’s Government in order to seem tough on the issue. I have the highest regard for the sailors of the Royal Navy and for those who serve on the Border Force cutters—they do their best in difficult circumstances—but I am not convinced that the Home Office or the Ministry of Defence is taking the issue seriously enough. In her response, can the Minister outline what vessels we have in the English channel and what they are doing exactly? Have they intercepted any asylum seekers and, if they have, have they taken them back to France or Belgium, or have they simply ensured safe passage to these shores?

The Government have spent £6 million on new security equipment for the French, including CCTV, night goggles and automatic number plate recognition equipment, for deployment in ports on the French coast. I welcome that if it is true, but I am not quite sure why we, rather than the French, have to pay for it. That compares with the £148 million that Her Majesty’s Government have spent since 2014 on extra security at the port of Calais. I would like to see aerial surveillance close to the French coast, so that if small boats are detected trying to cross the channel, information can be relayed quickly to the French authorities, who can intercept them. Will the Minister tell the House whether the French have any vessels patrolling those waters? The rumour is that they have one French navy patrol boat doing something off the French coast. Is that true? Have any French vessels intercepted any asylum seekers and, if so, do they take them back to France, or do they offer them safe passage across the channel?

I understand that we have a comprehensive naval agreement between the Royal Navy and the French equivalent, covering a variety of defence and security issues. Under that agreement, is there any way in which we can have shared patrols so that wherever people are intercepted in the channel, they are taken back to France? It seems to me that the picture painted from all the television coverage is that if people are intercepted at sea, they have effectively made it—if intercepted at sea, they will be brought to the British coast. That acts as a magnet for people to try the passage, because they know that they do not have to get across the 23 miles; they only have to make it to the 12-mile limit and, once they have crossed it, they will be picked up and brought over to this country.

There is something called the Dublin convention, or the Dublin regulation, whereby if someone claims asylum in the United Kingdom and has been in a safe country on their way here, we are entitled to return them to that country. Are we using that? My information is that since 2015 we have only returned 1,186 asylum seekers under those rules, but the number of people claiming asylum in this country is absolutely enormous—33,780 in 2017, I understand—so we seem to return a very small number to the safe countries through which they came.

It might be an accident of geography, but we are surrounded by safe countries—pretty much all those 33,780 asylum claimants will have come through one, two, three or more safe countries before reaching our shores. Under the EU regulation, they should be returned to the first safe country in which they arrived. Those EU countries, however, do not fingerprint arrivals when they come in, so no documentation proves that they entered the EU via Italy, Greece or Spain. Especially before we leave the EU, we should insist that our present European partners enforce the regulation.

What will we do once we have left the European Union? Non-EU countries are attached to the Dublin regulation, so the idea that we have to be in the EU for it to work is simply not the case. Are we preparing the ground so that, once we leave, we can still be a member of the convention and return asylum seekers?

I also understand that 80,813 asylum applications were refused or withdrawn between 2010 and 2016, which is 80,813 asylum claimants whose claims were refused or withdrawn. Is that figure correct, and is it correct that of that number only 26,659, or 33%, were actually deported? If we are to turn down people applying for asylum in this country, we need to deport them, because they are not legal asylum claimants—but we are simply not doing that. The problem is that if those people stay in this country, even though their claim was illegal, after five or more years they can claim indefinite leave to remain. That whole problem is fuelling people coming to this country illegally: basically, they know that they can get away with it.

Civitas published an excellent report recently. The author was one David Wood, who was dangerously overqualified: he worked at the Home Office for nine years, including as deputy chief executive of the UK Border Agency and as director-general of immigration enforcement; and before that he was 31 years in the Metropolitan police. He probably knows what he is talking about. I agree absolutely with what he makes clear:

“There needs to be a two-pronged approach to the problem: to reduce the numbers of illegal immigrants who enter in the first place, and to improve the rate of removal for those who are refused asylum.”

The report goes on:

“The difficulty is that if claimants know that all they have to do is to reach the UK, or Europe, claim asylum, and then disappear if the claim fails…then that is an incentive to pay criminals and take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean and, ultimately, the English Channel. The asylum system then becomes a tool of abuse for those we, as a country, have not provided with an entitlement to be here. Once an individual has been in a country unlawfully for a number of years, the courts are very reluctant to order their removal and many can then regularise their stay. Again, the unlawful entrants know this, and the systems incentivise deceptive behavior.”

He is absolutely right about that. What will the Minister do to tackle the issue?

A lot of the asylum seekers who cross the English Channel in small boats are, I understand, Iranians.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

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I shall draw my remarks to a close.

What nationality are the people crossing the English channel illegally? It is reported in the media that most of them are Iranian. I understand that is fuelled by Serbia giving Iranians visa-free access to Serbia for a four-month period. Some 40,000 Iranians took advantage of that and are seeking to disperse themselves around the EU, including coming to these shores. Apparently, we let 63% of Iranians in; France keeps 69% of Iranian applicants out. Two and a half thousand Iranians applied for asylum here each year between 2008 and 2017—more than in any other EU country except Germany. Why are they all seeking asylum in this country and not in other EU countries on the way? Less than 4% of the total have been forcibly removed or have chosen to leave. What action have we taken or are we taking with the Serbian Government to ensure that the visa programme is closed down?

This is a big issue of huge concern to many people. We must be able to defend our coastline from illegal immigration. We must not encourage, by either doing nothing or doing very little, the people traffickers who are driving this horrible trade that puts many lives at risk. Above all, we want to ensure we have secure borders and can control who comes here and who does not.

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The Minister has until 5.13 pm, if she wishes to extend her remarks until then. That is because the previous debate finished early and we have been interrupted by Divisions.

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It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. Thank you for that clarification about how long I may speak for.

It is a great credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) that he secured this important debate. As many Members will know, this issue first came to prominence over the festive period, but it started significantly before that. We are very conscious that since October there has been a sharp increase in the number of migrants attempting to cross the channel to the UK in small boats. During 2018, more than 500 migrants, most of them Iranian, attempted to travel to the UK on small vessels. Some 80% of them made their attempts in the last three months of the year. As a result, the Home Secretary announced a major incident and this issue has become an operational priority for the Home Office.

The decision to announce a major incident was taken not least to protect the lives of those attempting to make this dangerous crossing; my hon. Friend was absolutely right to point out how perilous it is. However, it was also taken because we have an absolute duty to protect the border and stop organised crime gangs exploiting vulnerable individuals who want to come here by sending them through the busiest shipping lane in the world. That is why we must stop this incredibly dangerous route becoming the new normal for those wanting to enter the UK illegally.

My hon. Friend pointed out the hazards to individual migrants and shipping, but there is also a very real hazard to brave volunteers from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, many of whom have been deployed from Dover to effect rescues in the channel, and to coastguard and Border Force officials, who have been on both our cutters and the coastal patrol vessels.

My hon. Friend was right to point out that this migration is driven very much by organised crime gangs. Just last month, five members of an organised crime group received a combined custodial sentence of 21 years and 10 months for smuggling migrants across the border, and last year alone, Immigration Enforcement’s criminal and financial investigation teams successfully disrupted 405 events of organised crime groups and their activity.

As well as those investigations, the Home Secretary has redeployed two Border Force cutters from overseas to the channel. While they are returning, other Border Force vessels have been supplemented by a Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel. There has been some criticism from people who ask why the cutters have not returned sooner. It is important to note that those vessels are designed and built to work around coastal areas rather than to make longer distance or open ocean deployments. For the crews to transit the bay of Biscay during winter—especially while deep Atlantic pressures are sweeping across, causing high swells, at times of up to 14 metres—is a dangerous pursuit, which must not be taken carelessly. I fully support the principle that the safety of our Border Force commanders, crews and vessels is paramount.

All essential maintenance activity has now been carried out on the cutters. Both are fully crewed and await a favourable weather window to return to the UK safely and securely. Currently, our forecast for their return is early February. Upon their return, we will have four cutters available to operate in the channel, but Members will appreciate that I will not discuss operational deployment in detail. As I said, until the cutters’ return, we are supplementing coverage with a Royal Navy vessel. In addition to the cutters, we have Border Force coastal patrol vessels in place. I visited Dover over the Christmas period to see the great work Border Force officers are doing there. As the Home Secretary said last week, we have also started to deploy aerial surveillance of the English channel. However, Members will appreciate that that is covert surveillance and I do not wish to discuss those actions in detail.

It is important to note that we have not taken those actions alone. We have worked very closely with the French authorities to tackle the issue. Around 40% of people who attempted the crossing last year were either disrupted by French law enforcement or returned to France via French agencies. Just last week, along with the French Interior Minister, Christophe Castaner, I visited the joint co-ordination and information centre in Calais to see at first hand the great co-operation between French and British authorities. In London last week, the Home Secretary and Mr Castaner signed a joint action plan to commit to reinforcing our border control. That builds on the 2018 Sandhurst treaty and demonstrates our determination to secure our shared border.

Through those efforts, we have reduced the number of individuals attempting the crossing from around 250 in December to 90 so far in January. However, we must not be complacent, and I am determined that we make further efforts to deter both the facilitators and the individuals who seek to make the crossing.

As Members will be aware, there is a widely accepted principle that those seeking asylum should claim it in the first safe country they reach, be that France or elsewhere. Therefore, if we establish that a migrant first entered another EU member state, we will always seek to return them to that state, in accordance with the Dublin regulation. For arrivals from safe non-EU states, asylum claims in the UK may be deemed inadmissible if the claimant has already been recognised as a refugee or given similar protection, if they have claimed asylum elsewhere, or if they have already spent five months in a safe country in which they could have claimed asylum.

We expect refugees to claim at the first reasonable opportunity. Indeed, that is a widely held international principle, and it certainly does not involve travelling through safe countries to reach the UK. Upholding that principle does not mean we will remove those who face persecution to their country. However, we will seek to return migrants to the first safe country in which they should have claimed asylum. Last week, a small number of migrants who entered the UK by small boat over Christmas were returned to France.

In the majority of cases, if a migrant is picked up in UK waters they are taken to the UK, and if they are picked up in French waters they are taken to France. The action plan we signed with France last week makes a commitment that migrants encountered in the channel will be taken to the nearest safe port, in accordance with international maritime law. Too often, migrants in the channel dictated to those who came to their rescue where they should be taken. That is not right, and I have asked officials to do all they can to prevent that “asylum shopping”, whether on land or at sea.

It is an established principle that those in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, and if we establish that a migrant first entered another EU member state, we will seek to return them there, in accordance with the Dublin regulation. We do not want people to think that if they leave a safe country such as France and get to Britain they will get to stay, which is why we are working out, with our French counterparts, ways to increase the number of returns we make.

As part of the joint action plan agreed last week, the UK and France made a renewed commitment to return migrants who attempt to cross the channel to the country they came from. That plan, which comes into force immediately and builds on the existing framework of co-operation in the Sandhurst treaty, states specifically:

“Migrants rescued at sea will be taken to a port of safety in accordance with international maritime law. The respective maritime authorities will liaise with each other about rescue operations to provide mutual assistance as necessary at sea, and to determine the appropriate port of safety for a rescued migrant.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering rightly raised the issue of funding. The UK has agreed to allocate more than £6 million to support France’s comprehensive regional action plan. As he pointed out, that has led to additional surveillance and security on French beaches and ports, as well as greater co-ordination between the French authorities on land and at sea. Just over half the investment will come from money already allocated under the Sandhurst treaty, which was signed back in January 2018, and an additional £3.2 million of new funding will be used for equipment and measures to tackle illegal migration via small boats.

The structures in place to co-ordinate operations in the channel include the joint maritime operations co-ordination centre and the national maritime information centre. They are both supported administratively by Border Force, but the Department for Transport is responsible for their governance. The Border Force maritime intelligence bureau and maritime co-ordination centre also maintain a close dialogue with the French authorities operating both at sea and in the air.

The UK’s obligations to those seeking asylum are clearly defined in UK law. Those obligations will continue to be met after Brexit, and the UK will continue to recognise refugees under the 1951 convention. If a deal is secured and finalised with the EU, we will continue to participate in all EU asylum directives we are part of, including the Dublin III regulation, throughout the implementation period, but my hon. Friend will be aware that we have not opted in to Dublin IV. The UK’s position on granting protection to those who need it will not change as a result of leaving the EU. As well as providing sanctuary to those who need it, we intend to continue to work together at every point in the migrant journey, to address push factors, to importantly tackle organised crime and to limit pull factors and abuse of claims.

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I am listening to this good speech very closely. One of the pull factors for asylum seekers is that so many of those who make an asylum claim that is then rejected, get to stay here anyway. Some two thirds of rejected asylum claimants remain in this country, which is an appalling figure. What will Her Majesty’s Government do about that?

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. He will be conscious that I have been in post as Minister of State for Immigration for a year now. One of the real concerns we have is how we address people who remain here without status and without a right given to them by the courts to be here. Both my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are working very hard both on promoting voluntary returns and, where appropriate, using means of returning people to their safe country of origin by enforced measures. That does not always make us popular. I am conscious that we have an absolute duty to uphold our asylum system, to make it robust and to make it firm but fair, and part of that process is indeed returns.

My hon. Friend also mentioned pull factors in his speech, with specific reference to Iranians and he asked me to confirm that the majority of those making these small vessel crossings are Iranian. We believe in the region of 80% are Iranian, so that is a very high proportion. He also commented on the visa route through Serbia. I met—I am not sure if it was last week or the week before—the Serbian ambassador to raise this. She shared our concerns that Serbia had been used as a transit country. The visa route is now closed, but we are having close co-ordination with Serbia about the problem that has occurred there. The ambassador was positive about the role that Serbia could play, working with the UK.

There are many pull factors when it comes specifically to Iranians coming to the UK, one of which is language. I am well aware from my own constituency that a high number of Iranian citizens have come here, largely back in the 1970s. They have settled in the UK and been very successful. One of the big pull factors that we see for migration, throughout the middle east and north Africa region and beyond, is that when family members have come here, migrants often use that as reason to choose the UK, rather than other safe countries. The Home Secretary has been very clear on this point, and I hope I have been today as well. It is firmly our view that people should claim asylum in the first safe country and not the last, which in many cases is the UK.

Our position on granting protection will not change, as I said. We will still provide people with sanctuary, but we must continue with a strategy on the whole route of migration. The focus at the moment is very much on the channel, but we continue our work with our EU partners and beyond, across the MENA region, in the Aegean and the Mediterranean, looking at those strong routes of migration and working out how we can best counteract them.

Some of the best work that the UK does in counteracting the pull factors is through our extensive aid programmes, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, that make sure people can be safe, whether it be in the countries immediately surrounding Syria or further afield.

It is a month since the major incident was declared and the number of arrivals and attempts is around half that of the previous month. I would not want my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering or other Members to think that we are in any way complacent about that. We have seen these crossings attempted during perhaps the most dangerous part of the year. As spring and summer are approaching—I say that somewhat optimistically—it is imperative that we remain vigilant and continue our work with the French, to make sure that they too keep up the surveillance and observation on their beaches. When I was in Calais last week, I was conscious that it is a sparsely populated coastline, which is difficult to monitor closely. They have aerial surveillance and the French have been proactive in making sure they are playing their part. The Mayor of Calais was forceful in his message to me about how we could provide further help. It is important that we continue our work on a joint basis.

I am pleased by the progress we have made thus far, but more remains to be done. It is imperative that we go forward in the vein of joint co-operation, because migration across the channel is sadly not an issue that we will solve on our own.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered illegal seaborne immigration across the English Channel.