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Volume 773: debated on Thursday 9 June 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether it is their policy that migrants rescued from the English Channel should be returned to France, rather than brought to the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we work closely with the French to protect the border and prevent illegal migration. This includes on maritime threats. Our focus is on stopping boats leaving Europe and on developing strong intelligence processes. Migrants encountered in United Kingdom territorial waters by UK agencies are brought here, where they will be processed under UK legislation, in line with EU and international law. For those not claiming asylum, we seek a quick return.

My Lords, is it not clear that people smugglers and traffickers are able to persuade migrants to risk crossing the Channel despite the fact that their boats are unsafe and it is extremely dangerous to cross shipping lanes and so on, because they will be rescued and taken to the United Kingdom? Would it not frustrate the traffickers and people smugglers if we were absolutely clear that if people are rescued they will be returned to France, where, if they are genuine asylum seekers, they can anyway claim asylum?

With respect, it is necessary to have regard to international law in this respect, and the extent of our territorial waters. Pursuant to the UN convention on the seas, our territorial waters extend 12 miles from the coast, as do those of France. Our borders agency works within those territorial waters. Equally, the French work within their territorial waters. Of course, at Dover and Calais La Manche is only 20 miles wide. Nevertheless, although it may meet at a median point, we have to respect each other’s territorial waters. Those who are found in UK territorial waters are brought to the United Kingdom. Those found in French territorial waters are taken to France.

Is it not the case that if we left the European Union, the Dublin agreement would no longer operate and the French would have no obligation to receive people who came to their shores but ended up in Britain or in the sea? Of course, the same applies to every other member state where they might have first crossed European Union boundaries. Furthermore, is it not the case that if we left the French would shift the whole horrendous problem of refugees in Calais straight over to the White Cliffs of Dover? What consequence would that have for the people of the surrounding area?

Strictly speaking, our agreements with France over these matters are not predicated on our membership of the European Union, so we should be clear about that. Nevertheless, we benefit greatly from close co-operation with the French in these matters; indeed, not only with France but with Belgium and the Netherlands. The degree of intelligence co-operation reflects the very close union we have with these countries.

My Lords, in light of the comments by the French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, that if Britain left the European Union after the referendum, there might be a risk that the Le Touquet accords—the very bilateral agreements that the Minister has just referred to—may not be maintained, is it not clear that leaving the European Union would give the United Kingdom less control over our borders, and that by alienating our nearest neighbours we would be helping nobody, asylum seekers least of all?

I reiterate that the agreement we have with France is not predicated on our membership of the Union, as the noble Baroness herself acknowledged. Nevertheless, we cannot carry out the protection of our borders unilaterally; we depend on co-operation with our neighbours.

My Lords, who exactly is responsible for the recognised surface picture in our territorial seas, both down the North Sea coast and in the channel? There has been talk of three hubs being set up and of the Border Force working with the Navy. There is talk of working with HMRC. There are many agencies. Who is actually responsible for knowing which ships are coming across, with migrants, terrorists or whatever, and making sure that they are properly intercepted? Which department has that responsibility?

I am obliged to the noble Lord. The National Maritime Information Centre brings together information and intelligence provided by Border Force, the coastguard, the police, the Armed Forces, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Marine Management Organisation, as well as by the National Crime Agency. It co-ordinates that intelligence for the benefit of all these agencies.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that an agreement between Britain and France on migrants involves both parties agreeing? Has he seen a report from Paris this morning which says that the French Government are so concerned about the UK leaving the European Union that they will abrogate all those agreements as quickly as possible and encourage many more migrants to set foot in England and claim asylum?

One has to bear in mind that the French authorities are concerned about the movement of migrants through France, as well as those entering Britain. They therefore maintain an intelligence and border presence for these purposes. In these circumstances, it is difficult to believe that they would abandon these efforts simply because one country chose to leave the Union.

My Lords, I should like the Minister to update the House on the progress being made in processing the applications of those unaccompanied children still in the Calais camp, who may be entitled to asylum in this country under Dublin III, and who are among the most vulnerable to being preyed on by traffickers and most likely to undertake some of the most dangerous risks to get themselves to this country. What are the Government doing in discharging their obligation and the undertakings that they gave?

The process in respect of these children involves an application to the French authorities in the first instance. Where it is disclosed that they have a right to come to the United Kingdom, that is then addressed. This Government are assisting in these matters and have personnel available at Calais to assist in these cases.