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Immigration: Sangatte

Volume 710: debated on Monday 18 May 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action is being taken in Sangatte, France, to stop non-European Union immigrants, particularly young people under 18, from entering the United Kingdom illegally.

My Lords, since the closure of Sangatte camp in 2003, the United Kingdom and France have worked together to create one of the most secure border crossings in the world at Calais. This is achieved through the rigorous searching and screening of lorries, exchanging information on the changing nature of the threat and by sharing high levels of border-control expertise. Last year, we detected and prevented more than 28,000 individual attempts to cross the channel illegally.

My Lords, while those figures undoubtedly sound very impressive, why are so many people under 18 getting into the United Kingdom? Apparently, we do not deport them with the adults who also get in. Secondly, is not the whole thing made even worse by the fact that Her Majesty’s Government have not paid back to Eurotunnel the amount, which runs into several millions, that it has spent on security? Even today, I am told—I inquired yesterday—about 10 Afghans a day attempt to get into the United Kingdom. Does that not suggest that Her Majesty’s Government’s policy on Afghanistan is somewhat lacking?

My Lords, that was really a series of rolling questions. I do not accept that very large numbers of people under 18 are coming into the country. There is no doubt that some are, and it is quite difficult almost by definition to know exactly how many get in illegally, but we have been very successful at picking up the ones who manage to get through the very strict border controls. We deal with the under-18s very specifically and carefully to ensure that we comply with all the safeguards that are there for people of that sort of age. I will look at the question about Eurotunnel and get back to the noble Lord in writing.

My Lords, under Clause 57 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill, the UKBA and the contractors who work for it have to safeguard the welfare of children under their control, but only in the United Kingdom and not at the juxtaposed controls that are referred to in the Question. Will the Minister say what the logic is of applying different standards to the treatment of children according to whether they are in Yarl’s Wood or Sangatte? Will he also say why such a duty would prevent the authorities handing over a child to the French or the Belgians, where the child is refused leave to enter or is found to be at risk, as they do at present? What will be contained in this duty that will stop them doing that?

My Lords, the noble Lord is well aware that we had a long debate on these issues during the passage of the BCI Bill through this House, and I do not intend to go into the detail of that again. We liaise very closely with the French and with the International Organisation for Migration in dealing with people who we think might be under 18. France signed the convention in May 2006. The cases of unaccompanied children who seek asylum are considered by the French authorities. We co-operate daily with the French authorities. Clandestines under the age of 18 are handed into their care and control, and we are content that they deal with them appropriately.

My Lords, there are reports in the press that people who find the French crossing too difficult now pay to fly to Ireland and come in from that direction. If those reports are true, will the Minister say what discussions he has had with the Irish Government to prevent this happening?

My Lords, the noble Countess raises an important point. We have real concerns not just about the attempted entry of illegals into the CTA through Ireland but about serious crime and other issues. That issue was raised in our debates on the BCI Bill, and we discussed it. We have had a lot of debates with the Irish Government on this issue. They want us to strengthen our border controls, and they have already gone about strengthening their own.

My Lords, am I right in assuming that these gentlemen who wish to come in from Afghanistan or Kurdistan are illegal immigrants into France when they are in France? If I am right, can someone explain why the French do not send them back to Afghanistan rather than just leaving them to us to send back if they get over?

My Lords, I would like to say easily that anyone would rather live in this country than in France, but I dare not say something like that on the Floor of the House. There is no doubt that if someone is genuinely fleeing persecution, they should claim asylum in the first safe country that they get to. If they are not in need of protection, we and the French expect to return them home. There are complexities in French law, but we are dealing with the French very closely. The new Minister, Eric Besson, has been in dialogue with my honourable friend Phil Woolas about this. There is a lot of work to do. The French genuinely want to help, but they have real difficulties. It is very complicated, but absolutely anyone who comes should be taken in the first country that they get to. This is a real problem.

My Lords, how many people over the past year or two have the French found to be illegally present in France and deported to their country of origin? Do the French still tolerate this class of people they call people without papers—personnes sans papiers? They are left there, wandering around like lost souls. That does not seem to comply with the undertakings they have given about the treatment of those seeking asylum.

My Lords, I am not sure of the status of these people as regards papers. I know this was being addressed by their Minister, Eric Besson. It is one of the problems the French authorities have. We are in close liaison with them and we work very hard. I do not know the exact number that they have returned. If I do have that figure, I will get back to my noble friend in writing.

My Lords, Sangatte has gone. There were rumours that the Mayor of Calais was going to establish further reception centres. Will the Minister tell us if any discussions have taken place on that and, if so, where we are on this?

My Lords, the United Kingdom and France remain firmly opposed to any sort of Sangatte reception centre. There has been some confusion because there is a facility within our juxtaposed controls, which is a bit like a portakabin, where we hold people when they have been pulled off these lorries temporarily. We want to construct a better and more appropriate facility to do that before they are returned to the French. I think that is where there has been some confusion. We are in dialogue with the French about that, as we are on a number of issues to do with costs around the port of Calais.

Is the Minister aware that Sangatte is not the only camp of this sort within the European Union? There is now a camp at Patras in western Greece for people who have got into Greece, overwhelming the islands on which they have landed. As they are allowed off, they get to the western edge of Greece and then do their best to go illegally from Greece into Italy and then beyond.

Incidentally, this is not a French problem, it is a Schengen problem. Malta is similarly overwhelmed. Can the Government assure us that we are now working very closely with the Governments of Malta and Greece as well as that of Italy to cope with the surge of illegal immigrants being trafficked across the Mediterranean, many of them intending to reach either Britain, Sweden or other countries in northern Europe?

My Lords, what the noble Lord says is true. There is no doubt that this flow of trafficked people—and also some who are not necessarily trafficked but who are economic migrants—is becoming a flood. The global financial crisis will probably add to that. I am aware that we are in discussion with certain countries about this. I do not know the exact detail of it all. Even three years ago I was involved in discussions with the Maltese about the real problem they have of picking up shipping that is coming across the Mediterranean, very often in sinking condition. They are ending up with huge numbers of these people in their island. It is a real problem. Perhaps I could get back to the noble Lord in writing about what dialogue is going on because I am not sure about what exactly is happening in that area.