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Illegal Seaborne Migration

Volume 661: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if he will prevent illegal seaborne migration across the short straits of the English channel.

The English channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Every crossing attempted by migrants, often in unsuitable and very small boats, is life-threatening for those on board. These attempts not only represent a hazard to other vessels but threaten the safety of the Border Force, coastguard and lifeboat crews who come to their rescue. The Government are committed to preventing migrant crossings in small boats. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary declared a major incident in December last year, and our heightened response remains in place.

In January, the Home Secretary met his counterpart Monsieur Castaner and agreed a joint action plan to tackle seaborne arrivals. He will be speaking to him again later this week. The joint action plan builds on the extensive work we have undertaken in partnership with France over the past few years, including under the 2018 Sandhurst treaty. It demonstrates the strength and depth of our bilateral relationship and both countries’ enduring determination to secure our shared border and prevent illegal migration through France. Through measures such as increased surveillance and co-ordination of our joint response via the joint information centre, the plan enhances our robust border security.

The solution is not all about increased surveillance in the UK but also about preventing vessels from leaving France in the first place. We have recently delivered drones and other surveillance equipment to France, enabling its law enforcement officers to intercept and disrupt attempted crossings. We continue to look at a range of tactical options that work on both land and sea. Those attempting to cross should be aware that their efforts will be in vain. Since January, more than 30 people who arrived illegally in the UK in small boats have been returned to France and other member states under the Dublin regulation. We have many more in the pipeline for return.

Finally, we are tackling the organised crime gangs who are exploiting vulnerable and desperate individuals. Only yesterday, a French court sentenced two men to prison for helping migrants to make the treacherous journey across the channel. The summer months and settled weather will present us with further challenges, but we will continue to work co-operatively with France to secure our borders and seek to prevent further crossings from taking place.

Mr Speaker, I thank you for granting this urgent question and the Minister for her response.

In December 2018, the Home Secretary declared a major incident and said that countering this illegal migration would be an operational priority for the Home Office. That was in response to 40 illegal migrants who were picked up on Christmas day crossing the short straits. The Home Secretary had to rush back from his Christmas holiday to try to deal with the crisis. Despite what the Minister says, the problem is getting not better, but worse. At the end of May, 74 people—a record number—were intercepted on one day in a record number of boats. Some 140 migrants were picked up in the month of May, the highest number since December. I have no doubt that the Government say that this is an important issue and that they want to tackle it. In a Westminster Hall debate that I held on 30 January, the Minister responded that

“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.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 424WH.]

The police have said that trying to cross the short straits is like trying to

“cross the M25 at rush-hour on foot”.

It is incredibly dangerous for the families and children involved. We must be able to defend our coastline from this illegal immigration.

We are spending some €50 million—we are giving that amount to the French Government—to try to stamp out this migration flow, but it is not working. In 2018, 543 illegal migrants attempted to cross to this country from France. There were 438 in the three months from October to December. Eighty per cent. of them are Iranian, and apart from Germany, we are the biggest recipient of asylum claims from Iran of any EU country. The way to solve the problem is not to throw money at the French, but simply to take these people back to France when they are intercepted at sea. That will stop them attempting the crossing in the first place. If they know that they cannot come here and that they will be taken back to French ports, it will put an end to the horrible trade of human trafficking, which is driving this illegal activity.

The Government have, I am afraid, introduced largely cosmetic measures to show that we are trying to tackle this problem. We have had the Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel, HMS Mersey, bobbing around in the channel while Border Force cutters were being returned from the Mediterranean. Not one asylum seeker was intercepted by the Royal Navy, despite the best efforts of all the sailors. I have huge praise for all the men and women in the Border Force, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the coastguard and the Royal Navy, who have been doing their best, but the way to solve the problem is for the Government to take a strategic decision that once these people are intercepted at sea they are returned to France. If they make it to our coast, they should be returned under the Dublin regulations. Returning 30 of these poor individuals is simply not enough when over 500 are coming here during any one-year period. Indeed, 35,000 people claim asylum each year and we have returned only 1,186 since 2015. Will the Minister assure the House that we will have not just warm words, but effective action and a change of policy to send these people back to France?

I am sorry, Mr Speaker, but this might be a somewhat lengthy response. I reassure my hon. Friend that gold command still meets on a weekly basis and continues to do so, because we have always been conscious that the summer months may well bring better weather that would further incentivise people to make what is an incredibly risky journey.

My hon. Friend talked about Dublin returns, but I am very conscious that in many cases, these people have fallen prey to organised crime gangs. Their journey through Europe is incredibly rapid. There is very little evidence of them being in any camps around the Calais area before they seek to make a crossing, and there is simply no hit on the Eurodac system to demonstrate that they have been in another EU country before they arrive here. Under those circumstances, one cannot use the Dublin regulation to return them because they have simply not been recorded in another EU member state. More returns are in the pipeline—there have been 30 so far. We continue to work with not just EU member states but countries of origin to make sure that we can make progress in returning people to their home country.

My hon. Friend said that surveillance equipment and resources provided to the French were not doing the job and were cosmetic, but far from it. We have provided significant surveillance equipment, including drones, night vision goggles and high-powered wharf lights, to enable the French to redouble their efforts on the beaches. It is important to reflect that the coastline is very long—120 km—and has many sandy beaches and small tracks that enable vehicular access.

The French disrupt about 40% of attempted crossings before they leave the beaches, which is absolutely where the disruption should be taking place; it should not be taking place in the middle of the channel, which is incredibly hazardous for the lifeboat crews, the Border Force cutters, the coastguard and the migrants themselves, who put themselves at incredible risk. We will continue to use our best endeavours to deny the crossings the opportunity to launch, because once they are mid-channel, it must be about preserving life. I do not want to see in the English channel repeats of the scenes in the Aegean, where people have lost their lives in significant numbers, so I make no apologies for making sure that the efforts in the channel are about rescue.

I query the framing of the urgent question, which talks about “illegal seaborne migration”. We cannot know whether these people are genuine refugees until we have had the opportunity to examine their cases. I am glad the Minister mentioned the risk to life in the busiest sea lane in the world. We all agree that it is tragic that these men and women are the victims of organised crime and people traffickers. I have visited Calais, and although many of these people do not come directly from there, the people one meets in and around Calais are hugely exploited and vulnerable, and Members should show a bit more concern for the risk to life and the vulnerability of these persons.

We need to be careful not to be unduly alarmist. We are not being invaded. There is no comparison to D-day, or whatever flights of imagination some of our media resort to. When the issue of asylum seekers crossing the channel last arose, back in February, the Home Secretary was roundly criticised for his comments. He questioned whether the people apprehended were genuine refugees, and he added:

“If you somehow do make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure you are ultimately not successful because we need to break the link”.

That is not correct. It does not conform to international law. As I said, no one can possibly know whether every one of these cases is not a genuine claim for asylum. That decision must await the application itself and its examination. What the Home Secretary should have said is that we will do everything to uphold the law, and that means not making assumptions about the people crossing the channel but examining all applications impartially, granting asylum where it is justified and denying it where it is not. Each application must be judged on its individual merit, irrespective of how that person reached this country. That is the law. As I said, I query the framing of the urgent question. The Minister seemed to accept it. Does she accept that she cannot be sure—that no one in the Chamber can be sure—whether the people arriving here are doing so illegally until their cases have been examined?

On the wider issue of migration and asylum seekers, commentators and some Members appear to believe that more naval patrols can resolve the issue. That has been tried and has failed spectacularly and tragically. The mere existence of a naval patrol will not deter desperate people. According to the Missing Migrants Project, there have been 543 deaths in the Mediterranean this year alone. A maritime policing approach—let alone just turning back people who might be in British waters—does not work. It is a stain on our humanity and is shameful.

I am sure that the majority of Members understand that these deaths are terrible and unacceptable and that we should do everything we can to reduce their number. The Opposition support the right policies—the legal policies: policies that work, preserve our humanity and uphold human dignity, wherever people are from and however they came to this country. We have long supported the policy that works: the establishment of legal routes for asylum seekers and refugees. This is what all responsible stakeholders propose and meets our obligations under international law. We cannot assume that because of the way in which someone enters the country, that person is necessarily an illegal migrant. We should not dismiss the risk to the lives of people who, as I have said, are crossing one of the busiest sea channels in the world. We want to arrive at a sustainable solution that does not involve suspicion of people because of the way in which they cross the channel, and that means each case is dealt with on its merits.

This is a difficult situation, not least for the people who are so frightened, so desperate and so exploited that they seek to make the crossing in unseaworthy craft. However, we do not want to hear more reactionary grandstanding.

I hope the right hon. Lady is content that she has not heard reactionary grandstanding from me this afternoon, and that I have sought to focus on the efforts that are being made to save the lives of—she used this term herself—exceptionally vulnerable people, who are vulnerable before they take to the water in small and unsuitable craft, and much more vulnerable once they are in the midst of a very busy shipping lane. I hope I can reassure her that members of this cohort are treated no differently from others on receipt of their asylum claims. We study them in relation to our convention obligations under the human rights charter and, of course, EU regulations and directives.

When we have ascertained that Eurodac hits show that people have previously claimed asylum in another country, we will, of course, seek to return them under the Dublin regulation. As I have said, there have been 30 such cases so far, and there are many more in the pipeline. But the important point, which the right hon. Lady also emphasised, is that these are people in a vulnerable position, and it is absolutely our duty under maritime law to ensure that they are safe at sea.

My constituents on the Dover frontline are seeing what was a crisis at Christmas turn into a surge through the summer. We cannot have a summer of chaos on the English channel. May I call on the Minister, and all Home Office Ministers, not simply to pick up the phone to the French and Mr Castaner, but to have a meeting with their counterparts in France and enter into a new compact that will establish the measures we need to ensure the security of the border on both sides of the English channel, and to bring this crisis to an end?

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Home Secretary met Mr Castaner earlier this year. Indeed, I accompanied him back to Calais to visit the joint co-ordination centre. There are ongoing weekly meetings between Border Force officials and the police aux frontières, and with the regional préfet and sous-préfet, to discuss precisely this issue. However, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, it is about the border on both sides of the channel. It is much more effective to prevent a small craft from leaving the beach and thereby not risking life and limb than to seek to turn anything around in mid-channel. It is crucial for us to understand the implications of rescue operations in the middle of the channel. There are often children in those boats, and tactics are often deployed to ensure that the migrants are vulnerable. How despicable is it that they are being exploited by organised crime gangs who deliberately put children in those boats? It is far safer and much more desirable for us to prevent the launch of those boats than to take action at sea.

It has been good to hear the Minister acknowledge the vulnerability of many of the people who are making this dangerous crossing, and separate the victims of the traffickers from the traffickers themselves. Many of the people who make the dangerous journey across the channel have survived war, conflict and persecution in countries such as Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Eritrea, so we are dealing with vulnerable adults as well as vulnerable children.

However, it is also important to acknowledge that the number of people trying to reach the United Kingdom by boat is lower than the numbers in 2015 and 2016. To describe this as a crisis, or a major incident, risks creating the perception that the UK is overflowing with people claiming asylum, when the figures show that in the year ending September 2018, Germany, Italy and France all received twice as many asylum applications as the UK.

I echo the shadow Home Secretary’s comments: asylum and claiming asylum is a right, and asylum claims should not be prejudged. The 1951 refugee convention states that neither how people arrive in the country in which they claim asylum nor how many safe countries they have passed through should affect the outcome of their claim, so I look to the Minister for assurance that everyone who arrives, even by these reprehensible methods, is given the proper opportunity to claim asylum if that is appropriate and that due process has been followed.

The best way to address the risk of people making these dangerous journeys is to expand safe and legal routes such as family reunion and to bolster existing resettlement programmes. The resettlement programme introduced after the Syrian refugee crisis saved thousands of lives. I commend the UK Government for that, but we need to see it continue. Will the Minister commit to expanding the programme after 2020?

The hon. and learned Lady is right to point out that many of these people are the victims of organised crime gangs, but I would like to expand on one point, because they are not simply fleeing war. In many cases they are, as we know from the figures, Iranian nationals, who may have paid many thousands of pounds to make that journey and have done so putting themselves, and in some cases their families, at risk of falling prey to the very reprehensible tactics, as the hon. and learned Lady described them, of the organised crime gangs who make them vulnerable by choosing this route.

The hon. and learned Lady is right to point out that the figures are lower than at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, but that does not mean I am complacent in any way, because we do not wish to see the numbers go back to those levels. It is imperative that we seek to ensure our action with the French prevents people from making these perilous journeys.

I reassure the hon. and learned Lady that due process is followed in every case, but, as she will have heard me say, in those cases where there is a previous asylum claim in another EU member state we will seek to return people to those countries.

On the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, the hon. and learned Lady will know that we are on course to meet the 20,000 commitment by the end of 2020 and indeed have so far resettled over 15,000 individuals from the MENA—middle east and north Africa—region.

The hon. and learned Lady speaks about an issue that is a particular passion of mine, and having put in place the processes and structures that have enabled us to take part in the VPRS, working with local authorities and NGOs and various other agencies, I believe it is important that we maintain that commitment. It is wrong in my view to be a world leader in resettlement and to seek to pull back from that, but I am afraid the hon. and learned Lady will have to wait for an announcement, which I am sure will not be too distant.

The safety and security of the Kent coast is of tremendous concern to my constituents as well as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). The Minister is absolutely right: co-operation with the French authorities, which has been carrying on for years, is the key to minimising the terrible trade. Will she reassure me and my constituents that the British Government’s efforts to fight the organised crime gangs that facilitate this terrible trade are being ever-increased, because that is the most effective thing the British Government can do to minimise this dangerous traffic?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question, and I have indeed noticed that there is much interest from Kent MPs this afternoon. He is absolutely right to talk about the levels of investigation and shared intelligence with the French. To date, 14 French investigations have been instigated directly in response to National Crime Agency intelligence, and we have sought to enhance existing French intelligence.

Between them, Immigration Enforcement and the NCA have made 24 arrests in relation to the small boats threat, and there are ongoing inquiries into five persons of interest from the incidents on Saturday. As I mentioned earlier, there was one conviction and imprisonment yesterday in France and we absolutely must make sure we keep up our intelligence-sharing and criminal investigations to see off these crime gangs at the outset.

I welcome what I think the Minister was saying about wanting to continue the resettlement programmes. The Home Office is right to want to prevent dangerous journeys across the channel, where lives can be at risk. The Home Office made a big announcement about the deployment of HMS Mersey and HMS Enterprise to the channel, but can the Minister confirm that neither of those vessels was involved in leading any interceptions while they were deployed? Is it correct that the deployment cost the Home Office nearly £1 million? Does she agree that it is important that these measures should be evidence-based and not simply about being able to make big announcements?

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we should not seek just to make big announcements, which is why I am not making a big announcement on resettlement today, although I could have been tempted to do so by the previous question. I have always made my position clear, and I have worked closely with non-governmental organisations and Ministers across Government on resettlement. I am conscious that we should be proud of the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, on which we have done, and continue to do, some fantastic work. It is important that we keep our commitment to resettling the most vulnerable individuals from very difficult parts of the world.

On the deployment in the channel, it is a matter of record that we had to bring cutters back from the Aegean. It was important to have a presence in the channel during the intervening period offering coverage in case there was an horrendous incident in which lives were in peril. It was better to have capacity in the shape of a Royal Navy ship than to have nothing. The Home Secretary made it clear that we should make the preservation of life and limb our priority and have the resources in place to rescue people if needed. We should be incredibly thankful that there was no such requirement while the Royal Navy was there in the channel.

It is very good of you to notice that, Mr Speaker. I look forward to watching Tottenham on Wednesday nights next season, whereas you, Sir, will have to watch Arsenal on Thursday nights because, as the chant goes, you’re not very good.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the involvement of the Kent lifeboats, especially the Dover lifeboat, in responding to illegal migration crossings. The crews are mainly made up of volunteers and have been called out on many occasions. Our lifeboats are funded almost exclusively by donations, so these crossings will have impacted on vital funding within the charity. Will she consider requesting extra funding from the Treasury to compensate the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for this particular aspect of its important work of saving lives at sea?

As my hon. Friend knows, I had a really informative visit to the Dover lifeboat over the Christmas period, and it was absolutely at the forefront of understanding the channel, the risks and the crossing patterns that were emerging at the time. I was very impressed by the commitment shown by the brave men and women who crew the Dover lifeboat. She makes a valid point, and I would be absolutely delighted to put that request to the Chancellor, although of course I cannot make any commitments. It is important that we not only thank our lifeboat crews, and I would be happy to make that request to the Chancellor.

Can the Minister categorically confirm that no one who could make a claim for asylum is being sent back to France under the so-called gentleman’s agreement that allows for migrants to be returned within a 24-hour period?

It is always better to go for the Arsenal fan on that basis, Mr Speaker.

It is very much with the vulnerable people in mind that I ask this question of the Minister. Will she ensure that she continues to apply the full force of the law? If we send out the wrong signal to people that they can make this perilous journey, I am afraid that more and more of them will lose their lives and be taken advantage of by despicable people. I say that because I represent an East Sussex English channel constituency, and I am afraid that we will be left to deal with the aftermath.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. As I mentioned earlier, Immigration Enforcement and the National Crime Agency have made a total of 24 arrests in relation to the small boats threat. It is imperative that we continue to keep up the pressure on organised crime gangs, but he is right to point out that the individuals who make the perilous crossings are, in many cases, both vulnerable and the victims of those gangs. It is important to treat them properly and to ensure that they are safe, but this has to be about disrupting organised crime, because that is where the real threat lies.

I am grateful to the Minister for her emphasis on safety and preventing harm and loss of life and to hear that an announcement is imminent about the expansion, or something, of resettlement. However, returning to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), although the Minister said that people are being treated exactly the same, that is not quite the full answer that I and, I think, my hon. Friend were hoping for, so I will give her one more chance: is she absolutely sure that everyone who was entitled to apply for asylum was offered that chance?

We will seek to return those who have registered on Eurodac because they have previously claimed asylum in a safe country. However, it is my understanding that everybody else who seeks to make an asylum claim will be treated absolutely the same as anyone else who applies for asylum in the UK. I am unaware of anybody who wanted to make a claim being prevented from doing so and returned, but it is right that if someone has previously made an asylum claim in a safe country we will seek to return them.

As the Minister responsible for deploying the Royal Navy off the Libyan coast during Operation Sophia, I am surprised that the crews of HMS Enterprise and HMS Mersey were not able to pick up these people. They may not have been drowning, but the crews have great expertise in dealing with such situations from previous operations. Were they instructed not to intercept unless there was a crisis? What operational orders were given to the Royal Navy?

While Royal Navy vessels were in the channel, it is important to state that Border Force’s coastal patrol vessels and our cutters were also deployed. Although I cannot comment on the operational instructions given to Royal Navy vessels, we should be grateful that there was no loss of life or limb and that they were not needed to rescue people. Several coastal patrol vessels were in the vicinity while the Royal Navy vessels were there, and several are there now.

Does the Minister agree that the development of a hostile environment in Britain pushes people towards criminals, meaning that they cannot get access to services here? The same is true across the channel in France. If we do not provide people with legal means of coming here through managed migration, that pushes them towards criminals. We need to open up better routes for people, so that they are not forced into the hands of criminals.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman missed me talking about the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which has so far resettled in excess of 15,000 people from the middle east and north Africa region. However, he is right to point out that managed routes such as that are far better than making perilous journeys across the channel.

My right hon. Friend will know that we always seek to deport foreign national offenders when possible. Our emphasis continues to be on returns and on ensuring that those who have served criminal sentences in the UK are deported when possible. That is not always the case, so this is about having returns agreements with other countries and ensuring that travel documents are available. However, it is our ambition, under the UK Borders Act 2007, to ensure that foreign national offenders are deported to their country of origin upon the completion of their sentence.

I certainly give a provisional welcome to what the Minister said about the possibility of extending the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, but we will wait to see exactly what is proposed. This is about safe, legal routes, so that people do not have to resort to smugglers if they are coming to the UK for legitimate reasons. Why are so many children having to wait many months in Calais to be transferred under the Dublin III scheme? Why is the Dubs scheme being wound down despite the fact that local authorities are saying that many places are still available for such vulnerable children?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Dubs scheme is not being wound down and that transfers continue. He will be aware that we have removed the date criteria, and we continue to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the best interest test to make sure that we can fulfil our commitment under the Dubs scheme.

The hon. Gentleman might also be aware that, at the end of May—I apologise for not having the precise date —we increased unaccompanied asylum-seeking children funding to £114 per child per night. We have worked tirelessly with the Local Government Association to encourage those who are not taking part in the national transfer scheme to do so, so that we can continue to make progress and fulfil our Dubs commitment.

It is good to hear the Minister accept that the best way to prevent refugees from taking these dangerous crossings is to provide safe, legal routes to sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. Going back to the Dubs amendment, the Government promised two years ago to provide a scheme for 480 unaccompanied refugee children. When will that promise be delivered?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that, at the beginning of last year, we changed the qualifying date for Dubs children in an endeavour to make sure that we could meet the 480 commitment. We have now removed the qualifying date altogether so that any child who qualifies and meets the UNHCR best interest test can be transferred under the Dubs agreement.

The right hon. Gentleman will have just heard me say that we have increased funding to local authorities, and I continue to encourage individual Members to contact their local authorities to encourage them to work under the NTS to take additional unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

We have 4,500 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in this country, and it is important that we continue to work with our colleagues both in local government and in the wider community to make sure that we meet that commitment. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to talk to his local council to see whether it can add to the UAS children it already takes.