To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on those crossing the English Channel in small boats.
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 hon. 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, including—
Mr Speaker, I sincerely apologise. In that case, 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 am grateful to you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and for the Minister’s response. I would first like to send my thoughts to the family of Abdulfatah Hamdallah, who died in the English channel—a powerful reminder of the gravity of this issue.
Over a year ago, the Home Secretary said:
“We’ve been working extremely closely with our French colleagues to tackle the use of small boats but we both agreed more needs to be done.”
Why does the Minister think that that work last year has proved so inadequate? The Minister himself scrambled to France on 11 August and announced the joint action plan, but can he outline when that will be available for scrutiny? We all agree on the need to tackle criminal gangs, but does he also accept the importance of safe routes for those seeking asylum? The Government were warned, including by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, that the collapse of safe routes would lead to growing numbers of people taking to the sea.
The expectation around the Dubs amendment across the House was that 3,000 children would be accepted under the scheme. Does the Minister now agree that it was a profound error and, frankly, lacking in compassion to close down that scheme when only a 10th of that number had been accepted? What provisions have been put in place for the welfare of any children who have been intercepted on the crossing? What safeguards are being put in place to ensure that all accommodation is kept safe and covid-secure, as well as protected from far-right attacks, which have unfortunately been reported in recent days?
What we need now are solutions, not empty headlines trying to sound tough. I have deep concerns that in recent weeks the Government, through talking up the deployment of the Navy and the RAF, have tried to militarise the solution when lives are at risk. Ultimately, the sad truth is that people are fleeing their homes as a result of poverty, war and persecution. Does the Minister accept that abolishing the Department for International Development is a great mistake? Is it not the truth that the Government’s approach to this whole issue has, frankly, been defined by a lack of compassion and a lack of competence?
I shall try to be brief in my reply, Mr Speaker.
The shadow Home Secretary asks why numbers are so high. Global migration has been growing strongly, and he will be aware that 40,000 people—a far larger number than have crossed the channel—have crossed the Mediterranean. Moreover, during the coronavirus pandemic we have seen displacement from other illegal entry routes, such as lorries and the use of fake documents on aeroplanes, into the maritime route, and we have been successful at preventing illegal immigration through the juxtaposed controls. The situation has been compounded by unusually benign weather conditions in the English channel over the summer.
The shadow Home Secretary asks about safe routes. Since 2015, the Government have provided almost 20,000 resettlement places—a number that dwarfs the 3,000 that he mentions. Since 2010, some 44,000 children have been offered protection of one form or another by the United Kingdom. He says our approach lacks compassion, but I direct him to those figures. I also remind him that last year, 2019, this country received more applications from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children than any other European country, and all of them have been generously looked after while their claims are processed.
The shadow Home Secretary asks about children. When children arrive, they go straight into social care and are extremely carefully looked after while their claims are processed. This Government certainly need no lessons in compassion. Our asylum system is extremely compassionate and extremely generous, and the numbers speak for themselves.
I thank the Minister for his statement. May I impress upon him the strength of feeling on this issue in Newcastle-under-Lyme and elsewhere? It is not because my constituents lack compassion or humanity; it is because they recognise that what is going on is not only illegal but represents unfair queue jumping. I spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) about this issue earlier; she has been working all summer to bring this issue to the Minister’s attention. Does he agree that what is currently happening is in essence a form of asylum shopping, wherein people claim asylum in the first country they reach and then move to another and claim asylum again? They keep claiming asylum—instead of securing asylum in the first safe country, they keep coming to the UK, where they believe we have a more favourable asylum system. Does he agree that asylum shopping needs to end?
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) for her tireless campaigning on this issue. She has done a huge amount of work in this policy area. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) is absolutely right: people who are genuinely seeking a safe refuge could and should claim that refuge in the first country they reach. The people arriving in Dover yesterday and today have left from France, which is a safe country with a well-functioning asylum system. If their principal objective was to seek refuge from persecution, they could easily have done that in France or, indeed, any of the other countries through which they passed before they arrived in Calais.
Five years on from the day the world was shocked by little Alan Kurdi’s death, perhaps the Minister could just agree that the response to the channel crossings should be informed by empathy and evidence and not driven by Farage and friction. Will he confirm that, despite what he has said, there is nothing in international law that requires refugees to apply for asylum in the first safe state that they come to, even though the overwhelming majority do? Will he acknowledge that there will be good reasons, such as family ties, for many of the people attempting crossings to make their claims here instead of in France? Will he recognise that by failing to provide safe legal routes, the Government force people to use ever more dangerous alternatives and drive them into the arms of people smugglers, as at least two parliamentary Committees have previously pointed out?
Instead of bashing our brilliant human rights lawyers, will the Minister now put those safe routes in place; ensure a successor to the Dublin family unity rules; restart resettlement and commit to it for the long term; and reopen Dubs and other safe routes from Europe? That would be a response rooted in empathy and evidence.
Safe routes from Europe are not the answer to this problem because, by definition, people in Europe are already in a safe country. Transporting people from one safe country in Europe to the United Kingdom does nothing to add to their protection. There are, of course, routes for family reunion—at the moment under Dublin and in the future under the United Kingdom’s own immigration rules. In relation to a safe legal route for people fleeing persecution, the hon. Member has already referenced the resettlement programme, which between 2015 and the onset of coronavirus saw just a shade under 20,000 people being resettled directly from dangerous conflict zones, mainly in the vicinity of Syria. Those routes have existed for the last five years, yet I am sad to say that illegal migration continued none the less.
French authorities have a serious and significant role to play in preventing small boats from crossing the channel and putting so many lives at risk. Does my hon. Friend accept that the more that the French authorities negate their responsibilities, the more lives are put at risk and the further encouragement is given to traffickers?
My right hon. Friend is correct. I should pick up on the point made a moment ago; the way to ensure that lives are protected is to ensure that no one attempts these crossings at all. As he says, that means working with the French to prevent these crossings from taking place. That is the way to protect lives and stop the ruthless criminal gangs exploiting migrants, and that is the Government’s objective.
A report last year by the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which the Home Secretary was a member at the time, said:
“In the absence of robust and accessible legal routes for seeking asylum in the UK, those with a claim are left with little choice but to make dangerous journeys by land and sea.”
How many more people like Abdulfatah Hamdallah have to die before the Home Secretary creates those safe and legal routes?
I have already pointed out that there are safe and legal routes into the United Kingdom. In addition to the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme that I have referenced already, which ran very successfully from 2015, there was also the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme, the gateway scheme and, of course, the Dubs scheme—a commitment that we met in full. Many people claim asylum having arrived in this country on a visa as well, so the safe routes that the hon. Member describes do exist already.
Let me emphasise once again that the people making these crossings on small boats are leaving a safe European country—France—having often travelled previously through countries such as Germany and Italy, which are also safe countries with an asylum system. If these people’s principal concern is to secure protection from persecution, they have had ample opportunity to do so long before getting on one of these dangerous boats.
Having had some responsibility in the past for the immigration system, I know how complex this particular subject is, so may I press the Minister on two points? First, I urge him to discourage economic migrants. If we were to improve our asylum decision-making speed, that would discourage them. Secondly, I urge him to use our development assistance, which the shadow Home Secretary mentioned, to focus on the source countries to ensure that people are not leaving for economic reasons and have more reason to stay at home. In that way, our 0.7% development assistance can help our national security as well.
My right hon. Friend has a long track record of distinguished service in this area. I completely agree with his point about overseas aid. This country is the only G7 country meeting the 0.7% of GNI commitment, and that is part of our efforts to help source countries to develop economically. As he clearly laid out, that will reduce the economic incentive to migrate.
Given the recent very violent assault on a young man who had just landed on a Kent beach and the planned protests by far-right groups in Kent reported in several broadsheet newspapers, what extra support is the Secretary of State offering police in Kent to ensure the safety of all those who seek asylum in our country? Will the Minister join me in telling the hate-driven, violent groups that make their way to Kent to go back to where they come from?
Yes, I will join the hon. Lady in condemning wholeheartedly and unreservedly the groups she describes who have targeted migrants in that way. There is no excuse at all, under any circumstances, for harassing people who have arrived. Whatever someone’s views may be about the immigration system, there is no excuse and no justification. The police have our full support in dealing with anyone who perpetrates violent offences or harassment offences of the kind she describes.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the simplest and quickest way to ensure the flow of illegal immigrants is stemmed would be to send them immediately back to France as soon as they reach our shores? Does he understand the anger and frustration felt by many people in Kent that the Government are either unwilling or unable to take that action?
I do understand and share the anger and frustration my hon. Friend describes. I do agree that the best way to disincentivise or deter these dangerous and illegal crossings is returns when people arrive, because then the migrant would not bother attempting the crossing in the first place. We are, as I said, in the process of progressing getting on for 1,000 cases where the migrant has previously claimed asylum in a European country. We started that process in August and 26 people were returned on 12 and 26 August. That is a small start. We have a large number of further flights planned in the coming weeks and months to make sure that those people who legally should be returned will be returned.
With reports that the UK Government are planning to reduce or scrap their overseas aid budget, will the Minister confirm whether he is aware of the very clear link between migration patterns and efforts to provide international aid and development abroad? Does he agree that moves to cut back on that would only worsen the current situation?
Clearly, improving economic conditions in source countries is a vital part of tackling this problem upstream, as indeed is working with law enforcement agencies in those countries to disrupt the dangerous and ruthless criminals who operate in those areas. Work with the overseas aid budget is an important part of that, but so is trade. As we negotiate trade agreements around the world, that will also help to encourage economic development in some of the source countries. As employment is created and prosperity generated, I hope that will also reduce the economic incentives for the kind of mass migration we are currently seeing.
The Labour party could not be more out of touch with the vast majority of people on this issue, and I am quite surprised that it brought it forward. However, Labour party strategy is not a matter for me. One of the key drivers of illegal channel crossings is our easily exploited asylum system. Once inside the system, illegal migrants know the chances of being able to stay for good are high. Will the Minister prioritise bringing legislation before this House that eliminates the vexatious aspects of our asylum system, such as repeated asylum claims on different grounds, and consider the wisdom of using taxpayers’ money for legal aid claims to support those who have come over here illegally?
Speaking frankly, my hon. Friend is right in much of what he says. There are considerable issues with the way our asylum and immigration system has been operating in this area. I can confirm that there is considerable policy work under way to address areas where the UK’s immigration and asylum system is being exploited and abused. We are working on developing legislation to address those loopholes in exactly the way he describes, because we will not tolerate our system being abused in any way.
The UK has often been a safe haven for those fleeing their homeland for genuine reasons, whether persecution or fleeing terror. That should continue, while recognising that other countries can provide such protection. However, does the Minister believe that the Government have sufficient domestic tools, and co-operation from the EU and others, to manage illegal immigration into the common travel area and inward into the UK, whether through Northern Ireland or other ways?
As we leave the transition period in a few months’ time, we will want to continue co-operating with the European Union and, indeed, bilaterally with individual European countries. The problem of mass migration is in many ways a shared problem, so I hope that co-operation will continue. We are discussing that with the European Union, and we are discussing it bilaterally with France, Belgium, Germany and many other countries. I hope that the co-operation that the hon. Lady describes will continue, but, of course, it takes two to tango. I agree with her first point. We do have in this country a long and proud history of providing protection for those who are being genuinely persecuted and, of course, that will continue.
I thank my hon. Friend for his robust response today, which I am sure will provide some reassurance to the many people in Bishop Auckland who have contacted me about small boat crossings. I understand that, just last week, 23 migrants were due to be returned to Spain, but that was blocked by a string of legal cases. We need to remember that these are people who travel to our country illegally, bypassing safe nations, including Spain and France. Does my hon. Friend believe that the Home Office’s efforts to facilitate legitimate and legal returns of illegal migrants are too often being frustrated by activist lawyers putting in last-minute challenges, happy to see taxpayers’ money wasted in such a manner?
It is the case that the planned flight to Spain on 27 August was cancelled as a result of the lodging of a large number of last-minute claims, which left no time for them to be properly considered prior to the flight. It is likely that many of those claims were intentionally lodged at the last minute, but as those are being worked through, we will be organising subsequent flights so that people can be lawfully returned to Spain, a safe country where these migrants had previously claimed asylum. That can and should take place.
I apologise in advance for stating the totally blindingly obvious, but I do so in the hope of assisting the Minister here. If we do not provide safe and legal routes for people who are fleeing war and persecution, they will resort to unsafe and illegal routes. There is only one other country in Europe that does not allow unaccompanied refugee children to be reunited with their families and sponsor that reunification. Why is that?
I repeat that there are plenty of legal mechanisms by which people may claim asylum. About 40% of those people claiming asylum have entered the country in a lawful manner. I will just draw attention once again to the resettlement scheme, which has seen almost 20,000 people resettled here directly from conflict zones—not people coming through France and Spain who are in a safe country already, but the people who were in or around places such as Syria who were genuinely in danger. On unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, given that last year we received more than 3,500 UASCs, the highest number of any country in Europe, we need no lectures on that topic.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that his Department is urging the French Government to take more rapid and productive action to prevent those leaving the French coast in the first place and that he is looking at ways to return economic migrants and to process those vexatious asylum claims in a more rapid manner?
Yes, I can confirm that we are doing all those things. Work is under way as we speak to do more with our French colleagues. I have mentioned the joint intelligence cell already, and we are doing work to strengthen our existing operational plans. Moreover, the work on returns, both now, under the Dublin framework, and subsequent to the end of the transition period, is actively under way, because if we return people who make this unnecessary, dangerous and illegal journey, there will be no incentive or reason to attempt it in the future.
One reason we have seen a rise in small boat crossings is the crackdown on border controls in terms of lorries and the significant drop in freight traffic because of coronavirus. Does that not just show that the problem will not go away, despite the sort of military heroics that the Government are trying to embark on in the channel, and that we need to identify safe and legal routes? In particular, we need to work in France with people who have a proven connection to the UK, particularly refugee children, to try to deal with the problem before they try to reach the UK by illegal means?
In relation to children, there are already family reunification provisions in the Dublin regulations, and there are provisions for children to be reunified, particularly with their parents, under our own immigration rules that will come into force after we leave the transition period. In terms of the displacement between different methods of illegal entry, the hon. Lady’s analysis is, broadly speaking, correct, but just because it is difficult, or can be difficult, to stop illegal migration, that is not going to deter us from doing so. It is our duty, as the United Kingdom’s Government, to prevent illegal immigration and to choose, as a sovereign Parliament and a sovereign nation, to decide who comes into the country and who does not. We will never abandon our responsibility to properly police and protect our borders.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and our law enforcement agencies on the recent arrests that have been made. Will he set out what further steps he is taking with counterparts overseas to smash the criminal networks who are exploiting migrants and risking their lives by organising these dangerous crossings?
I add my tribute to my hon. Friend’s tribute to our crime fighting agencies—the police, the National Crime Agency and Immigration Enforcement, who are working day and night to break up these criminal gangs. I mentioned the raid that I accompanied in July, which went to about 13 different addresses across most of London and resulted in 11 arrests and the seizure of £150,000 in cash. There are multiple operations under way in the United Kingdom, but also working with law enforcement partners in other European countries and countries beyond Europe, to break up these criminal gangs. It is not just in France; it goes way beyond France. They are dangerous; they are ruthless; they are exploiting vulnerable migrants; and they are engaged in other associated criminality. We will stop at nothing to get all of them rounded up, arrested and put out of business.
It has been sad to watch a summer of the Government chasing cheap newspaper headlines, rather than getting a grip of this challenge, because growing global climate change will only make more challenging migration patterns for European countries. We need a cross-European solution. We have heard from the Minister for immigration compliance what his solution is: “Nothing to do with me, guv—stay in Italy, stay in Greece, stay in France, stay in Germany.” That will not do. So what are the Minister and the Home Office doing, today, to get to a mature, equitable and humane solution with our European partners?
As I say, we have, as part of our European Union negotiations, made a detailed and comprehensive offer in relation to returns arrangements—readmission arrangements—and indeed UASC and family reunification. That offer was a detailed offer. We tabled a full legal text in both of those two areas in May last year, and that will provide the basis of the co-operation that the hon. Gentleman describes. But if, for any reason, that agreement cannot be reached, then obviously we will make our own unilateral arrangements that are compassionate, humane and fair but at the same time control our borders.
I wrote to the Home Secretary recently about the concerns raised by my constituents who are seeing repeated images in the media of these dangerous and illegal crossings. Our current asylum laws are bound by the EU’s restrictive and rigid legislation. Will my hon. Friend commit to reforming our laws around asylum, illegal migration and the associated criminality to stop these crossings completely once our transition period with the EU ends this year?
I do share that objective, so does the Home Secretary, and so do the whole Government. Where we need to legislate to tighten up the law in this area to make these crossings impossible, we will not draw back or hesitate before taking those steps. We are determined to do whatever it takes to make sure that our borders are properly policed. If that requires legislation, then we will legislate.
The Minister talked earlier—with some pride, I think—about our taking the highest number of applications from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, which is good. Overall, the UK takes three times fewer asylum applications than France, three times fewer than Spain and four times fewer than Germany. So if we were to reopen safe routes properly, what level of asylum applications does he think would be a fair share for us to deal with?
When it comes to helping vulnerable people, it is far more effective to help those who are in dangerous locations rather than shipping people from, say, Spain to the United Kingdom, because countries like Spain are already safe countries. As I say, we do more than our fair share when it comes to protecting vulnerable people. I have already referenced the fact that we have the highest number of UASCs of any European country, and our resettlement programme, in the five years from 2015 to 2020, took in more people directly from conflict zones than any other European country. So any suggestion that this country is not doing its fair share is completely wrong and completely misguided.
This issue just seems to be maundering on and on; we keep coming back to it again and again. On 9 June this year, I asked Ministers about this issue, as my constituents in Clacton expect this matter to be dealt with—it is what they voted for. People’s lives are at risk. Criminal gangs are getting rich and it has to stop, so what concrete progress has been made since I last asked this question? I reiterate that we need to get the French navy to step up to the plate and take those people off the boats in international waters. How are we going to ensure that that happens, and soon?
Since we last spoke, the French officers operating on or near French beaches have stopped hundreds of crossing attempts—they have stopped about 3,000 crossing attempts so far this year. We have also established the joint intelligence cell that I mentioned earlier, and intelligence passed from the National Crime Agency here in the UK to our French counterparts contributed, I believe, to 84 crossing attempts being prevented this morning alone, so that is good progress. However, there is undoubtedly more that needs to be done, because these crossings are continuing at frankly unacceptable levels, and negotiations and discussions are continuing as we speak with our French colleagues to step up our efforts and activities even more.
Refugees experience situations that few of us can even imagine, yet in recent months, while sitting aboard overcrowded dinghies in the middle of the English channel, they have been subjected to a voyeuristic media filming them, like some sort of perverse sea safari, while also facing a UK Government intent on enforcing upon them their hostile environment. So I ask the Minister: do either of these things give him any shame?
The hon. Gentleman, frankly, has a cheek to talk about hostile environments in this context. We have one of the most accommodating asylum systems in Europe. When people arrive and claim asylum, they are accommodated. Their council tax and utility bills are paid for. They get an allowance to cover essentials and food. That is a far more accommodating approach than in many other European countries, so to say that somehow they face a hostile reception, frankly, could not be further from the truth.
Many of my constituents in Lincoln know that the majority of the illegal crossings are being facilitated by organised criminals who are exploiting vulnerable migrants and putting their lives at risk. I have heard the answers that my hon. Friend has given, but will he confirm that he and the Secretary of State are committed to cracking down on the criminals? Can he update us on the French levels of law enforcement in this regard and how joined-up our Gallic friends are in assisting the UK and our agencies under Home Office control in stopping this illegal practice occurring and currently flourishing, seemingly, in the first place?
There are dozens of investigations under way into these criminals who are facilitating illegal immigration. I have mentioned the 24 convictions and prison sentences given already this year in the UK, and there has been a similar number—in fact, I think a slightly greater number—in France. We are now working ever more closely with our French colleagues and the various arms of the French Government on this activity. We have the joint intelligence cell. There is the Co-ordination and Information Centre unit in Calais, which co-ordinates activity between our two Governments and our two sets of law enforcement agencies. I said that an arrest was made as recently as this morning. The French are making arrests as well. Both Governments share the objective that my hon. Friend described of putting these dangerous and ruthless criminal gangs out of business.
The Minister keeps referring to applying for asylum in the first safe country, as though it were a legal requirement. It is not—it is one of the criteria under Dublin. People have a right to apply in any country they choose and family reunion is supposed to take precedence, so I would like him to correct that when he replies. I would also like him to say whether his Government will focus more on the causes of migration, including the accelerating climate emergency, and take seriously a Bill that I will be tabling later today—the climate and ecological emergency Bill—which is designed precisely to try to tackle some of these root causes of why so many people are taking to dangerous boats.
Of course we agree that dealing with issues in source countries—economic issues and others—is a vital part of fixing this problem. Migration trends across the world, and into Europe across the Mediterranean and the Aegean, have grown dramatically over the last few years. The small boat crossings that we are seeing are a small part of that much bigger picture. This Government have done a huge amount on climate change. We have virtually eliminated coal-fired power stations, one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, and CO2 emissions generally in this country have fallen dramatically over the last 10 or 15 years, as the hon. Lady well knows.
We went to my hon. Friend the Minister and the Home Secretary to be candid about the level of anger and frustration felt by many of my constituents in Mansfield and people across the UK at stories that we hear about illegal migrants arriving on our shores, being put up in hotels and having endless legal challenges funded at the expense of British taxpayers. The Minister is right that we need to stop the boats leaving France in the first place, stop this criminal activity and prevent people from putting their lives at risk in this way, but what can we do here at home to ensure that our domestic system for asylum and deportation is seen to be working for British taxpayers?
The hotel situation that my hon. Friend describes is a very short-term, temporary measure that was a response to the coronavirus epidemic. It is certainly not intended to be permanent, and we are in the process of making arrangements to unwind it as quickly as possible. On the asylum system and the legal loopholes, as I said, we are actively exploring legislative options to ensure that our system is tightened up and cannot be abused.
This Government are militarising the humanitarian crisis, made worse by past military interventions in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The inconvenient truth, of course, is that Britain has long played the role of agitator, making worse global crises that destabilise regions and displace people. Wales has committed to becoming a nation of sanctuary. What will the Minister’s Department do to enable that, or is sanctuary not part of the Government’s vocabulary at present?
Some of the largest source countries include Iran, Eritrea and Sudan—countries in which the United Kingdom has had no previous military engagement. On the question about being a nation of sanctuary, I have already pointed out that last year we made 20,000 grants of asylum and other forms of protection. We have resettled just a shade under 20,000 people under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, and many more under the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme and the gateway scheme, and we have done the full number that we committed to under the Dubs amendment. That is clear evidence of this country’s commitment to compassion and to giving refuge. At the same time, we will police our borders.
I start by paying tribute to our law enforcement and our Royal Navy, despite the comments of Opposition Members. It is approximately a 300-mile drive from Heywood in my constituency to Dover, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke). When I say to the Minister that I have received a large number of communications about these crossings, I think he will accept the depth of feeling among people not just in coastal areas but across the entire United Kingdom. I ask him to reiterate the Government’s commitment and to ensure that no stone is unturned and no illegal crosser is unreturned.
The Home Secretary and I and the Government completely understand and fully accept the depth of anger that is felt right across the country at the crossings that are occurring illegally, dangerously and unnecessarily. My hon. Friend can have my assurance that we will leave no stone unturned. We are trialling various methods that could be used on the sea to prevent crossings, and we are actively exploring necessary legislative options. As far as returns are concerned, we are working daily to return those who legally can be returned under the existing legal framework, and we will be aiming to construct a replacement legal framework once we are outside the transition period.
The world is interconnected, and when we do not help fellow humans suffering from hunger or persecution, or in war-ravaged nations, they inevitably, in utter desperation, risk life and limb and try to seek refuge elsewhere, including trying to cross the English channel in small, unsafe boats. Does the Minister agree that it is a cruel irony that the Department for International Development, which works to eradicate poverty, is being abolished today as we debate the inevitable impact of the fact that so many people are displaced by conflict, poverty or persecution?
It strikes me as surprising that the hon. Gentleman’s analysis made no reference to the fact that we are the only G7 country contributing 0.7% of GNI in overseas aid. We were the second largest global donor of aid in the Syrian region. Our contribution to that humanitarian effort is without question. He talks about people fleeing war-ravaged countries, but the people getting on these small boats are not embarking from the shore of a war-ravaged or dangerous country—they are embarking from Calais. France is a safe and civilised country. So are Germany, Spain, Italy and all these other European countries. They are not fleeing war; they are crossing the channel from France.
The Minister has repeatedly stressed that these people crossing the channel illegally have already sought sanctuary in other countries in Europe, and yet they still come. He said that 1,000 people are being returned, but what the House would like to know is what percentage of the people who have arrived on our shores illegally over the last year have actually been expelled from the country back to a country where they have already claimed asylum.
In the last 18 months, about 185 people have been physically returned. There are getting on for a further 1,000 people whose cases we are currently progressing where there is evidence of a previous asylum claim, and therefore, under the Dublin regulations, they are liable to be returned. That work is continuing at pace. A number of flights have been booked in the coming days and weeks to do exactly what my hon. Friend quite rightly calls for.
There are still 6,000 children in makeshift camps in the EU. In the time it took for the Home Office to process the 480 spaces—only 480—that it committed to under the Dubs scheme, hundreds of those young people have gone missing. In another life, they could be my children. With the Dubs scheme now formally closed, what steps is the Minister taking to protect vulnerable children such as the ones in those camps who seek refuge from war, torture and persecution?
I have already pointed out that last year we received 3,500 asylum applications from unaccompanied children—the highest number of any European country. That is our contribution to the European effort to look after children—more than any other country. I call upon the other European countries operating the camps that the hon. Lady describes to show the same compassion and attention that we do when we look after UASCs in this country.
My hon. Friend rightly points out that these crossings are facilitated by criminal gangs—criminal gangs who, we should remember, care not a jot about those who are taking such treacherous journeys to our shores. Intelligence from the NCA and other partners suggests that these gangs are not just facilitating people-trafficking; they are linked to money laundering and wider organised crime group activity. What assurances can he give that we are looking at this issue in the round and applying all our intelligence to try to stop these gangs and stop these crossings?
My hon. Friend is right in his analysis. National Crime Agency officers are embedded in law enforcement units around Europe and beyond to track down these criminal gangs. It is not just an issue in the UK and France. These criminal networks extend throughout Europe, through countries such as Germany, Italy and Greece, often through Turkey and thereafter into the middle east. The National Crime Agency and others are working tirelessly with other law enforcement agencies to crack down on these gangs in exactly the way he describes.
Just last week, the Minister’s Department posted a video attacking so-called “activist lawyers”. Does he understand that Trumpian language like that and other comments in the Chamber today risk stoking further divisions and tensions? Will he apologise for demonising both asylum seekers and lawyers acting on their behalf in saying that they were trying to “undermine” the rule of law? Will he at least introduce safe passages to prove that this is not a dystopian Government?
I have repeatedly outlined the safe passages or safe routes that already exist, which many tens of thousands of people have availed themselves of. In relation to legal processes, there are loopholes in our legal system at the moment that are frequently exploited, and this Government are determined to close them.
According to a poll, 77% of the public see illegal immigration as a serious problem. They know what the Minister knows: that the system is being gamed. Asylum is a noble cause—giving safe haven to people in genuine need is something to be proud of—but the system is broken and needs to be fixed. I have complete confidence in the Home Secretary and her diligence, dedication and determination. When will we see root-and-branch reform in the form of legislation?
Can the Minister confirm that the UK is not in fact being invaded, and does he recognise that the Government’s quasi-military response, rather than humanitarian response, with terms such as “clandestine channel threat commander”, only fuels tension, the scapegoating of asylum seekers and racism?
Dover is the national centre for the small boats crossing routes, with more than 5,000 illegal entrants this year and boats arriving day after day on the beaches in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that we can put an end to the small boats crossing routes and that that has three parts: stopping the boats before they leave the French shores, turning around boats when they are in the English channel and sending them back to France and, if people do break into Britain through these illegal routes, making sure they are returned swiftly to France and other countries?
My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner and advocate on this issue—I can testify to that as a Home Office Minister—and her analysis is essentially correct. The three strands of work she just outlines are the three we are pursuing. Some will require new techniques to be deployed on the water, which we are trialling at the moment, and some might require legislation, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) mentioned a moment ago, and we are prepared to legislate.
The UK needs to do more, not less, to provide sanctuary for refugees, given the world’s growing ecological and economic crises. Instead, the Government are dehumanising these people by presenting them as an illegal threat. This is a dangerous path and one that goes completely against the ideals we should be aspiring to: empathy and humanity. Why can the Minister and the Government not see this?
Where people have a genuine fear of persecution, where they are fleeing to our shores and need our protection, or where we encounter them directly in dangerous areas, we are of course prepared to offer protection, as we did via the resettlement scheme, but that in no way removes, dilutes or diminishes our obligation and determination to protect our borders from illegal immigration. This Parliament and this country will decide who comes here, not ruthless people smugglers, and I call on the hon. Member and the whole Labour party to assist us and work with us in protecting and defending our country’s borders.
By the time people reach the English channel, be they economic migrants using illegal routes, or asylum seekers seeking safe haven, they have often passed through a number of safe countries, so what steps are the Government taking to ensure that those countries along the whole route are fulfilling their legal obligations?
My hon. Friend raises a good and interesting point. I have already pointed out that the UK is scrupulous in discharging its obligations in international treaties to look after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and asylum seekers more generally. Not all countries in Europe are as diligent and scrupulous as we are in discharging that duty, and I again take the opportunity to call on those countries to step up and do as much as we do to look after those vulnerable people who enter their countries. If they did that, it would again reduce the incentive for people to attempt these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossings.
On 9 August, the Home Secretary announced that she had appointed a clandestine channel threat commander. Can the Minister confirm precisely what powers the commander has and how the elements of the role could not be addressed by Border Force?
Former Royal Marine Dan O’Mahoney has been appointed, as the hon. Member describes, and has overall operational and policy responsibility for this rather unique and very serious problem. Because it is so multifaceted and involves lots of different law enforcement agencies—not just Border Force but the National Crime Agency and Immigration Enforcement—and requires working with French authorities and UK Visas and Immigration, we felt we needed a single person empowered and accountable to seize control of the situation and get it fixed. We think that Dan O’Mahoney will do a fantastic job and will grip the situation and bring this problem under control.
From my time on the Home Affairs Committee, I understand that we have evidence of individuals coming into Serbia from Iran because there was a visa waiver: from Iran they go into Serbia, from there they go to France, from France they go to the channel, and from the channel they go to Kent in my part of the country. I understand that loophole has now been closed, so how and through what countries are these illegal migrants getting into the EU and the Schengen area? I say to the Minister that my constituents on the frontline in Kent urgently want the Government to get this sorted swiftly.
We hear that message loud and clear. We understand the anger at those illegal, dangerous and unnecessary crossings, and we will do whatever it takes to stop them, including working with the source countries and the upstream countries in the way my hon. Friend has just described.
To understand the scale, am I right in saying that the number of asylum applications in the UK in the most recent year for which figures are available was 35,566; the number of asylum applications on the most recent figures available in France was 114,500; and that for the same period in Germany, the figure was 161,900?
My constituents are becoming increasingly frustrated by the completely unacceptable scenes on the south coast. While I do not doubt the determination of my hon. Friend to tackle the problem, it appears that the Government lack the legislative tools to take the robust action that my constituents rightly demand. Does my hon. Friend agree that the time has now come to fundamentally review our approach to illegal immigration and asylum so that we do not lose the public’s trust on this vital issue?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments. We understand and share the anger that his constituents feel, and he is a very effective advocate for them. We are doing work at the moment at pace to develop legislative options to achieve the outcome he desires, which is to properly control our borders.
Unlike the ghastly rhetoric we have heard from some on the Government Benches, the Minister is well aware that refugee charities have asked the Government to protect trafficked women detained in hotels in Glasgow, a call that has fallen on deaf ears, and the same campaigners are calling for the Government to create safe, legal routes for asylum seekers, but instead we get a shameful response. Not doing enough to help refugees is inhumane and indefensible.
When will the Minister and the Department end their dangerous rhetoric and the hostile environment, and start treating refugees detained in hotels or on boats in the channel with respect, dignity and compassion?
No one is detained in a hotel: they are given free hotel accommodation. In relation to modern slavery, the national referral mechanism provides extremely comprehensive protection to those people who have suffered from the appalling crime of modern slavery.
While the English channel route remains viable, criminal gangs will continue to exploit vulnerable people and put lives at risk. My constituents want those gangs stopped. What further intelligence measures can we take with our French colleagues to trace the vessels being purchased by criminal gangs? They are large vessels and surely more could be done to trace them.
Work is under way in that area. The French authorities have clamped down a great deal on the sale of those vessels, so some of the more organised criminals now seek to procure them not in France but in other countries in Europe. Many of the migrants have now resorted to stealing boats and other vessels around northern France and the French police are working hard to try to prevent that.
The Minister has spoken much about the compassion that the Government are showing, but will he acknowledge that we all know that the best way to prevent people from making desperate and dangerous journeys is to provide safe legal routes? In their negotiations with the EU, however, the Government are seeking to end this country’s mandatory obligation to reunite unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children with their families. Could he use some of that compassion to persuade the Government to change their negotiating position and allow those reunifications to continue?
It is not the Government who require persuading; we have tabled a detailed legal text providing for reunification, and we would like the EU—the European Commission—to engage with it. The hon. Lady’s good offices and persuasive skills would be better applied to the European Commission.
I pay tribute to the agencies involved in this and, in particular, to the recent intelligence sharing that led to the successful raids and the stopping of these crossings at source. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) mentioned the “blindingly obvious”, so let me say to the Minister that people who get to the channel and join small boats have clearly gone through safe countries that have working asylum systems. As we leave the transition period, may I, like other Conservative Members, implore that legislation is brought to this place to fix these things?
This problem has got worse throughout this year, and one consequence is that children in the asylum system are largely accommodated in Kent. The leader of the county council said that there were 589 in August, despite the fact that the safe number is considered to be 231, under the national transfer scheme. What can the Minister say about this situation? Will the Government do more to make sure that children are accommodated safely in the asylum system away from Kent, and not just principally in Kent? Will they make sure the county council has the resources it needs to care for the children it is supporting at the moment?
We increased, back in June, the funding that Kent and other authorities accommodating large numbers of UASCs receive, but I recognise that Kent bears a disproportionately large share of UASCs. My local authority of Croydon also does, because Lunar House is in Croydon. I have been in regular contact with Roger Gough, the leader of Kent County Council, and I pay tribute to him and his team for the work they have done. We have been rapidly working with other local authorities around the country to transfer UASCs from Kent to other authorities—I thank those other authorities for the response they have so far demonstrated—and by doing that I hope that we are able to ease the pressure that Kent has been under, which I fully acknowledge. We are working to reduce the pressure that my hon. Friend has accurately described.
The Minister has just outlined some of the provisions to support children who are intercepted in these channel crossings. Does he feel that the local authorities, right across this country, have enough resources to support children who are intercepted?
We recently increased the funding to support local authorities in relation to UASCs and care leavers—former UASCs who are now aged up to 25. That was increased by about £35 million per year just a few weeks ago. So, yes, I do believe the financial support is adequate.
Clearly, these crossings are only made possible by criminals who thrive on exploiting vulnerable migrants and endangering their lives. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the safest ways to protect refugees is to crack down on this abhorrent trade and reform our asylum laws to ensure that those most in need are protected?
Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to human rights and migration lawyers, who do an essential job in upholding the rule of law and preventing the Home Office from breaking its international obligations under human rights and refugee conventions?
I do not believe that the Home Office breaches its human rights obligations; we take them extremely seriously. We suffer from a large number of very late legal challenges—often repeated legal challenges, brought sequentially on ever shifting grounds—and we are working as hard as we possibly can to make sure that our laws are properly and fairly applied.
Does my hon. Friend agree that our European friends and partners, not just the French, need to do more to help the UK prevent the crossings by focusing more resources and determination on cracking down on the organised criminal gangs across Europe that are exploiting individuals seeking a better life and forcing them on to boats to make perilous journeys across the channel, needlessly?
I completely agree. I think European Governments have a moral obligation, as much as anything else, to join us in the work we are doing to put these dangerous and ruthless gangs out of business. They are taking the most vulnerable people, exploiting them, abusing them and taking money from them. It is completely unacceptable. We are going to take the action that we need to on our side of the channel, and I hope that other Governments around Europe do exactly the same.