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Illegal Migration: English Channel

Volume 683: debated on Monday 9 November 2020

What steps her Department is taking to stop migrants crossing the English Channel illegally; and if she will make a statement. (908391)

These small boat crossings are dangerous, as the tragic fatalities last month showed. They are illegally facilitated by reckless criminals, and they are totally unnecessary because France is a safe country with a well-functioning asylum system, where people can seek protection if they need it. We are determined to completely stop these crossings. We are working with the French authorities to prevent embarkations. We are considering action we might take at sea, and we are taking robust law enforcement action, leading so far this year to nearly 100 arrests. Just last week, two people were convicted and sentenced for facilitating these illegal crossings.

My hon. Friend actually answered the question I was going to ask, so I am going to ask him something else instead. We have all been shocked by the number of deaths in the channel, but why does he think people want to leave France?

I must try to be diplomatic in the way I answer that question. There are a variety of motives, which probably include things such as language. The simple truth is that if people are seeking protection, France has a fully functioning asylum system. It is a safe and civilised country, and there is no reason to attempt and no excuse for attempting this crossing. That is why anyone in need of protection should avail themselves of it by claiming asylum in France and not attempting this dangerous crossing.

As the Minister knows, this problem has been getting worse throughout the year. We are seeing tragic loss of life and concern for communities on the channel coast because of this problem, which is profiting people-trafficking gangs. What progress is being made, either in preventing more crossings from leaving France in the first place or in stopping boats at sea and returning them to the French coast? If the migrants can see that they cannot get into the country in this way, fewer of them will try.

My hon. Friend is right to point out that this trade is facilitated by dangerous and ruthless criminals. On activity with the French, we are working with them to prevent embarkations and we are funding gendarmes who patrol the beaches. In fact, the French authorities have successfully stopped nearly 5,000 crossings this year so far. We are in the process of actively investigating action at sea because, as my hon. Friend says, if it is obvious that nobody can make it across, they will stop attempting such dangerous crossings in the first place.

We are also working to return under the Dublin regulations people who do get across—in fact, this week there are three flights, some of which will contain cross-channel migrants being returned under the Dublin regulations. By a combination of law enforcement on French beaches, potential action at sea and returns, we can remove the reason for even trying such crossings in the first place.

Does the Minister agree that the best way to clamp down on these illegal crossings is to prevent the small boats carrying the illegal immigrants from ever leaving European shores in the first place? Will he confirm to the House what steps he is taking with his French counterparts to ensure that they are stepping up their actions in that respect?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we need to do more with our French colleagues to prevent the embarkations. As I say, we are now funding additional gendarmes to prevent embarkations from the beaches, and we are supporting the French to provide proper, safe accommodation for migrants who would otherwise be living in the various camps. We are also investigating action at sea. My hon. Friend is quite right that if we can render these crossings essentially impossible, nobody will attempt them in the first place. Not only is that the right thing to do from a health and safety point of view, but it is the right thing to do to undermine and prevent the ruthless criminal gangs who are behind these crossings.

May I start by extending my sympathies to the relatives and friends of all who have died attempting these crossings?

As a matter of international law, entering a state to seek asylum without a visa is not illegal—I am happy to share with the Minister the advice from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on the matter—but the crossings are certainly most irregular and very unsafe. Rather than fanning the flames of people’s desperation for political reasons, would it not be better for the Minister to focus on creating safe legal routes for asylum seekers? While he is attending to that, will he encourage the Home Secretary to stop her anti-lawyer rhetoric and acknowledge that there is a responsibility on politicians and other public figures to avoid saying anything that could make tensions worse or put people’s lives at risk?

Article 31 of the refugee convention, to which I think the hon. and learned Lady was referring, makes it clear that the prohibition on criminalisation of entry applies only to people who are directly—I use the word “directly”—entering a state from somewhere that is unsafe. I respectfully point out that France is not unsafe; France is a safe country.

On the hon. and learned Lady’s question about safe and legal routes, there are a large number of such routes and around about half the people who come here to claim asylum already do so via legal routes. In addition to that, for the past five years we have been running the resettlement programme, taking people directly from conflict zones—for example, Syria—and bringing them to the United Kingdom. Over that five-year period some 25,000 people, half of whom are children, have come via the resettlement route. The resettlement route—a safe and legal route of the kind for which the hon. and learned Lady calls—is the largest resettlement programme of any European country. We have a proud record of supporting people in genuine need and we will continue to do so.

On the hon. and learned Lady’s last question, I of course completely support the Home Secretary and we will continue to fight vexatious, last-minute legal claims when it is appropriate to do so.