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Asylum Seekers

Volume 807: debated on Thursday 29 October 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government, following the deaths of at least four people in the English Channel, what steps they are taking to protect asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking who are fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in the UK.

My Lords, this tragic event highlights the grave dangers of channel crossings and the pressing need to stop the callous criminals who are exploiting vulnerable people. The UK has a proud history of granting protection to those who need it, but it is an established principle that people should claim asylum in the first safe country that they enter. We continue to work closely with our neighbours to discourage people from making these dangerous and unnecessary journeys.

My Lords, I have four grandchildren under the age of 10, and I cannot imagine being so scared of what might happen to them on land that I put them in an unsafe boat to cross the English Channel. Yet this week, Rasoul Iran-Nejad and Shiva Mohammad Panahi put their three children, Anita, aged nine, Armin, aged six, and 15 month-old Artin, in a boat. Two of the children are dead, along with their parents, and one is still missing. Surely in this day and age, France and the UK, the fifth and seventh-largest economies in the world, with some of the most professional armed forces and diplomatic services in the world and a history of public service administration, can find a way of coming together with the International Organization for Migration and the UNHCR to find a safe route for families fleeing persecution to come to France and this country, and to have their applications determined in a safe and legal manner?

The noble Lord will appreciate that because there is an ongoing investigation, I am unable to go into much detail on the names, identities and ages of the people that he mentioned, but I have seen the reports, as I am sure we all have, and the details are heart-wrenching. This tragic case underlines the importance of breaking the criminal business model, which is exploiting the desperation of vulnerable people who, as he says, are in fear. We are working very closely with the French. Our National Crime Agency is assisting the French authorities in their investigation. The Home Secretary has appointed a former Royal Marine, Dan O’Mahoney, as the clandestine channel threat commander, to tackle the problem there. However, the noble Lord is also right that we must have safe methods for people to claim asylum without making that journey, which is why our vulnerable persons resettlement scheme works with the organisations that he mentions, to ensure that people do not undertake these perilous journeys.

As an agreement with the EU on family reunion is unlikely to be reached by the end of December, will the Government, as a matter of urgency, seek the co-operation of the French authorities to identify people, especially children, who are eligible for family reunion or who have other connections with the UK, in order to expedite their safe passage to this country and avoid another tragedy?

The noble Lord is a respected and tenacious campaigner on these issues. I know that he has an amendment to the Immigration Bill which the other place will have the opportunity of examining next week. Tragically, this incident has happened while we still have the Dublin convention, so it is important to make a distinction between those regulations and the actions that we must all undertake to deter people from making these dangerous journeys. Nobody should be crossing the channel in this dangerous way.

My Lords, if there is a so-called pull factor that is resulting in desperate families dying in the channel, it is that many of those who make the crossing are given asylum in the UK because they are genuine asylum seekers, yet the only way that they can find out if their claim will be accepted once they are on the European mainland is by making the crossing. Why do the Government not allow applications from those on the European mainland, and, if they do not qualify, tell them unequivocally that they will be deported if they make the crossing? Surely letting them know what will happen before they make the perilous crossing is the decent and humane thing to do.

My Lords, we want to deter people from undertaking dangerous journeys at every stage, whether that is across the channel or further upstream. We have seen terrible cases in the Mediterranean too. That is why our vulnerable persons resettlement scheme is working directly in affected areas so that people do not need to travel across the world putting themselves and their families in danger, but instead can apply. We can then give people the protection that they need directly from source, rather than after they have endangered themselves.

My Lords, as we have already heard, the death of anyone trying to reach the UK in search of safety is tragic, and the tragedy is multiplied when it is the death of a family. Save the Children is right to say that the English Channel must not become a graveyard for children. With that in mind, can the Minister update the House on the resumption of the refugee resettlement programme which was suspended in March?

The right reverend Prelate is right that this is a particularly heart-wrenching case. As she says, the resettlement scheme was paused in March because of the Covid pandemic, but as per their statement in June, the International Organization for Migration and the UNHCR are beginning to resume some of their functions, although with limited capacity. The UK’s visa application centres are also beginning to resume some of their functions, again with limited capacity. The same applies for the Home Office teams who are processing applications. We hope to help people as swiftly as possible.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that any attempt to process asylum applications abroad would be rapidly overwhelmed by a huge number of claimants? Failed applicants might well head for Calais, thus making a very bad situation even worse. Have the Government considered joint maritime border controls with powers to return migrants to their point of departure?

I agree that we want to deter people from making dangerous journeys to the European continent, whether by land or sea. Dan O’ Mahoney is today in France meeting the French authorities and continuing the deep engagement that we have with them to tackle this problem in the channel.

My Lords, last week the Government voted against both free school meals for hungry children in the UK and a legal route to safety for refugee children. Why is it that vulnerable children are paying the price for this Government’s policies? Two days ago, the Home Secretary was quoted as saying:

“I will do everything I can to stop callous criminals exploiting vulnerable people.”

If next week the Home Secretary votes again to slam shut the only safe and legal route for vulnerable children to reach the UK, how can she possibly make that claim?

I am sorry to hear some of the noble Lord’s points. The Government want to create safe and legal routes so that vulnerable people, including vulnerable children, are not put at risk by making dangerous channel crossings. That is why our vulnerable persons resettlement scheme has helped nearly 20,000 people over the past five years, including children. We have seen over 29,000 family reunion visas issued in the last five years as well, so we are doing what we can to help vulnerable children.

My Lords, the shocking event at Dunkirk must shame us all, particularly those who fail to accept that the pressure of migration has been with us for a very long time. It applies to rich as well as poor countries. We need a safe and secure method, as the Minister has described. What is the status of Dublin III in the discussions and negotiations that we are having with the European countries? What happens to countries, including Britain, that fail to take a quota of migrants?

The noble Lord will understand that I cannot comment on the ongoing negotiations with the EU, but as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, this tragic event happened with Dublin III in place. The problem is the criminal gangs taking people’s life savings and sending them out to sea in unseaworthy vessels without a care for what happens to them. Those are the people whom we must focus on relentlessly.

My Lords, although HMG must retain the right to allow—indeed, facilitate—the entry of any individual into the UK, following the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Green, can my noble friend confirm that the Government will not seek to move out of the UK the process for assessing the asylum claims of those who have not yet entered the UK? To do so, even if it started only in France, would rapidly result in an unmanageable number of claimants from all over the world.

I agree with my noble friend that to do so would increase the risks and encourage more people to make dangerous journeys. That is why our efforts are focused on schemes such as the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which takes people directly from affected areas and gives protection to those who need it most.

The Minister keeps referring to the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, but the fact is that we have no official resettlement scheme currently open. It is the absence of a safe official route that drives these poor people into these terrible dangers. Will the Minister please give a straight answer to the question asked by the right reverend Prelate? When will our resettlement schemes reopen? Others have reopened theirs. Will the Government ask the French and Belgian authorities to permit UK staff to process family reunion cases and asylum applications in the ports and camps where these poor people currently are?

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot give a simple answer to that question because, as I am sure the noble Lord appreciates, it depends on the Covid-19 pandemic. However, as I said to the right reverend Prelate, some of the functions are beginning again, as far as that is possible in the light of the pandemic. That is the best way to help vulnerable people without encouraging them to make dangerous journeys and fall prey to the sorts of callous criminal gangs that are behind so many of the deaths in the channel.

Will my noble friend explain to the House how these blackguards or people smugglers are allowed to ply their evil trade in broad daylight on French soil and in French waters? Can he assure the House that there is not a political dimension to this crisis by allowing this trade to continue on French soil and in French waters?

My Lords, we are working very closely with the French Government and the French authorities to tackle these callous criminals. I can tell the noble Lord that, last year, there were 418 arrests and 203 convictions, which resulted in combined sentences of more than 430 years. So we and the French take this problem very seriously and are determined to pursue the criminals who endanger the lives of vulnerable people.

My Lords, the desperation of these people is palpable, as shown by the Nigerians who took over a tanker in the channel very recently. One should say that the operation to recover the vessel was well executed—a textbook case. I was surprised that there was no Statement in the House, as we were taking over a foreign ship in international waters, but clearly that is what we do now—we do not worry about it. Having been a seaman for 50 years, I can tell the House that people will die in the channel if they keep coming in these little inflatables. What worries me is that people will have seen that the takeover of a merchant ship or ferry is not difficult. I hope that we are looking carefully at this. I could certainly take over a ferry in Calais with five people with no problem at all; that is a real worry. Is this being looked at? Are we taking precautions to make sure that it does not happen? The risks would be huge if that sort of thing happened.

The noble Lord gives me the opportunity to thank the police and the Armed Forces for their quick and decisive action at the weekend, which was important. He is right to raise the fact that, as the weather worsens over the autumn and winter, these crossings, which are already dangerous, will get only more perilous. The Home Office is working with the French authorities to look at all the different routes that people pursue—through the Channel Tunnel, on ferries and by other means. These are not safe. All these routes are dangerous to pursue and we do not want to see anybody risk their life in this way.

I declare my interests in the register. Following the question from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I ask the Home Office to take practical steps to identify and bring to England—under Dublin III, on the right to join families—the unaccompanied minors in Calais and Dunkirk to save them taking perilous journeys.

I am afraid that I did not quite catch the end of the noble and learned Baroness’s question. If she will forgive me, I will consult Hansard and write to her if I have missed anything. However, on the Dublin regulation, over the last four years, the UK has consistently reunited the second-largest number of family-linked cases after Germany, so we take our responsibilities seriously.