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Channel Crossings in Small Boats

Volume 805: debated on Thursday 3 September 2020

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given on Wednesday 2 September in the House of Commons.

“In recent months, the UK has seen a completely unacceptable increase in illegal migration through small-boat crossings from France to the UK. This Government and the Home Secretary are working relentlessly to stop these crossings. Illegal migration is not a new phenomenon. Every Government over the last 20 years and more have experienced migrants—often economic migrants—attempting to reach the UK through illegal means. The majority of these crossings are facilitated by ruthless criminal gangs that make money from exploiting migrants who are desperate to come here.

We are working with the National Crime Agency to go after those who profit from such misery. Already this year, 24 people have been convicted and jailed for facilitating illegal immigration. In July, I joined a dawn raid on addresses across London, which saw a further 11 people arrested for facilitating illegal immigration, and £150,000 in cash and some luxury cars were seized. Just this morning, we arrested a man under Section 25 of the Immigration Act 1971 who had yesterday illegally piloted a boat into this country. Further such arrests are expected.

These crossings are highly dangerous. Tragically, last month a 28-year-old Sudanese man, Abdulfatah Hamdallah, died in the water near Calais attempting this crossing. This morning, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution has been out in the English Channel and has had to rescue at least 34 people, and possibly more, who were attempting this dangerous journey.

These criminally facilitated journeys are not just dangerous; they are unnecessary as well. France, where these boats are launched, and other EU countries through which these migrants have travelled on their way to the channel, are manifestly safe countries with fully functioning asylum systems. Genuine refugees seeking only safety can and should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. There is no excuse to refuse to do so and instead travel illegally and dangerously to the UK. Those fleeing persecution have had many opportunities to claim asylum in the European countries they have passed through long before attempting this crossing.

We are working closely with our French colleagues to prevent these crossings. That includes patrols of the beaches by French officers, some of whom we fund, surveillance and intelligence sharing. Over 3,000 crossing attempts were stopped this year alone by the French authorities, and approaching 50% of all crossing attempts are stopped on or near French beaches. This morning alone, French authorities prevented at least 84 people from attempting this crossing, thanks in significant part to the daily intelligence briefings provided by the National Crime Agency here in the United Kingdom.

It serves both French and UK interests to work together to cut this route. If this route is completely ended, migrants wishing to come to the UK will no longer need to travel to northern France in the first place. We are therefore urgently discussing with the French Government how our current plans can be strengthened and made truly comprehensive. We have already in the last two months established a joint intelligence cell to ensure that intelligence about crossings is rapidly acted upon, and this morning’s interceptions on French soil are evidence of the success of that approach.

It is also essential to return people who make the crossings where we can, and we are currently working to return nearly 1,000 cases where migrants had previously claimed asylum in European countries and, under the regulations, legally should be returned there. Last month, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced the appointment of former Royal Marine Dan O’Mahoney as clandestine channel threat commander. He will collaborate closely with the French to build on the joint work already under way, urgently exploring tougher action in France.

Let me conclude by saying that these crossings are dangerous, illegal and unnecessary. They should simply not be happening, and this Government will not rest until we have taken the necessary steps to completely end these crossings.”

I express our condolences to the family of Abdulfatah Hamdallah, who died in the English Channel. A government Minister went to France on 11 August and announced a joint action plan. The government response to the UQ said:

“We are … urgently discussing with the French Government how our current plans can be strengthened and made truly comprehensive”

and that the clandestine channel threat commander

“will collaborate closely with the French to build on the joint work already under way, urgently exploring tougher action in France, including—”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/9/20; col. 168.]

The Minister in the Commons was then stopped by the Speaker for overrunning his time. Can the noble Baroness finish her ministerial colleague’s sentence and tell us what “including” covers? So that we can judge whether the Government are seeking compassionate, competent and life-saving solutions to the issue of migration and asylum, can she also tell us what is in the joint action plan announced by her ministerial colleague on 11 August?

My Lords, I would never wish to finish someone else’s sentence, but what I can say about the clandestine channel threat commander, Dan O’Mahoney, is that he has been appointed, as the noble Lord says, and has overall operational and policy responsibility for this rather serious problem. Since there is a multiagency responsibility here which requires working with the French authorities and UKVI, we felt that it needed a single person empowered and accountable to seize control of that situation and get it fixed. What I assume will be in the joint action plan is an explanation of how the multiagency response will work. Of course, these things work best in a multiagency way.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the best way to stop the criminal exploitation of those desperate to seek sanctuary in the UK and to ensure that they do not risk their lives crossing the channel is to enable refugees to claim asylum without being physically in the UK and to provide safe and legal routes into the UK?

I am glad that the noble Lord recognises the need for legal routes. Of course, we have a number of those. Under Dublin, someone can claim asylum in the first safe country that they arrive in, which is of course all the states of the EU. We have our national resettlement scheme, under which we have resettled more people than any state in the EU, and 46,000 children have received our refuge since 2010. We also have family reunification visas, of which we have issued 29,000 in the past couple of years. That is not to say that what is happening is right; it absolutely has to be tackled. With what has been happening with small boats, the only people who benefit are people traffickers and criminals.

Setting aside the attractions of the UK because of language and relatively lax employment rules, I was on the Operation Sophia committee of this House, which looked at the EU’s system for dealing with migration. We concluded that the only way to deal with it was to break the business model. Will the Minister, first, consider, in talks in the Home Office, the need to destroy the boats and all the equipment that people arrive in, and, secondly, look at a system whereby they do not land in the United Kingdom but are put on a boat and taken somewhere else so that the attraction disappears? At the moment, if you land in the UK you have a 95% chance of staying. We have to break that if we are to deal with this problem.

My noble friend outlines some of the complexities of this. It is not in our purview to go and destroy boats that are not on our soil. They quite often come from France, as my noble friend said. On not landing in the UK, it is an internationally accepted arrangement that the first job of any maritime force, whether Border Force or whoever it is, to save lives at sea. That is a really important thing here. I will repeat what I said in the first instance: on taking someone somewhere else, when people are taken safely on to our soil we are obliged to hear and deal with their asylum claim. This is a problem for every state in the EU: we need to work, together with our partners, to deal with some of the problems of upstream criminality. The reason why people get on to these boats and take perilous journeys is that criminality, unfortunately, is at the heart of it.

My Lords, I think we would all agree that these are desperate people, many of them children. They are often the victims of war and persecution. The best way forward is to reach some sort of agreement with the French authorities. I suggest that the Minister should say to the French, among other things, that we will take all the children in northern France who have family members in this country or other close links with this country. We should say that we will do this quickly and expeditiously, in return for which we expect the French to redouble their efforts to catch the traffickers.

My Lords, that sounds really lovely in theory. In practice, it would just create another incentive for people traffickers to get people to France. Do not forget that France is a free, democratic and safe country. On arrangements with France, the noble Lord will know, because I spoke to him about it, that we have laid a legal text that talks about our obligations in taking asylum seekers who require our protection and, in turn, returning people who do not. Unfortunately, that has not progressed, but we continue to try to make progress with it because, as I have said all along, through the process of Brexit we want to help people who need our protection.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the refugee resettlement scheme. However, as far as we can tell, refugee resettlement remains paused since March. Can she tell me what plans the Government have to launch the new global resettlement scheme and why they have continued deportations and not inward refugee resettlement?

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right that it has been difficult since March. We took 52 people from Greece back in March but it has been incredibly difficult because of the lack of flights coming here. Of course, that has led, in some sense, to people reverting to trying to get here in small boats, and that is not at all the situation we want because they are simply being exploited. What was the right reverend Prelate’s second point?

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation. Our law enforcement agencies should be congratulated on some recent successes in apprehending some of the evil people who are smuggling people. What does my noble friend think the impact will be of leaving Europol and Eurojust on our efforts to fight this heinous crime?

My noble friend points to the real necessity of ensuring that some of those data flows in terms of law enforcement are maintained and are rigorous as we exit the EU and that we do everything we can to ensure the robustness of some of the instruments that will be replaced or indeed lost as we go forward.

I am afraid that the time allowed for this Urgent Question has now elapsed, with apologies to the three Members who I was not able to call. We will now have a short break for a few moments to allow the Front-Bench teams to change places safely.