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Migrant Crossings

Volume 794: debated on Monday 7 January 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the number of migrants trying to cross the English Channel in small boats and what the Government are doing in response. But before that, I know the whole House will want to join me in sending our thoughts and prayers to those injured in the attack at Manchester’s Victoria station on New Year’s Eve and to all those affected by this cruel and senseless act. I would also like to thank the emergency services for their courageous response. Thankfully, there were no fatalities and I am pleased to say that all three victims have now been discharged from hospital.

Let me now turn to the issue of English Channel migrant crossings. Over recent weeks, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of migrants attempting to cross the channel to the UK in small boats. More than 500 migrants—mostly Iranian—attempted to travel to the UK on small vessels in 2018; 80% of them attempted this in the last three months of the year. Around 40% of the attempts were either disrupted by French law enforcement or returned to France via French agencies. Since 1 January, a further 25 people have attempted to cross the channel but were disrupted. In addition, just this morning, a dinghy was discovered just off the beach at Dungeness in Kent. A number of individuals are now going through UK immigration procedures and one person has been arrested.

I am sure the House will want to join me in thanking all law enforcement agencies and all those involved in the response for their tireless efforts over Christmas and the new year. This includes: Border Force, Immigration Enforcement, the coastguard, the National Crime Agency and the RNLI, many of whom I met in Dover last week. I would also like to thank our French law enforcement partners for their efforts to date, which have been collaborative, swift and thorough.

The English Channel contains some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The weather conditions are often treacherous and the inflatable boats being used are woefully ill equipped to make such dangerous journeys. The migrants who choose to make the trip are putting their lives in grave danger and can at times create dangerous situations for our rescue services.

The reasons behind the increased crossings are diverse—and, in many cases, outside our control. First, instability in regions such as the Middle East and north Africa is driving people out of their homes in search of better lives in Europe. Secondly, organised crime groups are preying on and profiting from these vulnerable and often desperate people. They are falsely promising them safe crossings to the UK, even though the journey is one of the most hazardous and dangerous possible. Thirdly, strengthened security at the French-UK border has meant it has become increasingly difficult for stowaways to illegally enter the UK in trucks and cars, leading to more reckless attempts by boat.

I have been very clear that robust action is needed to protect people and our borders and to deter illegal migration. Over the festive period, I took the decision to declare the situation a major incident. I appointed a dedicated Gold Command and I stepped up the UK’s response. As part of joint action agreed with the French, I have ordered two UK Border Force boats to be redeployed from overseas to patrol the channel. This is in addition to the two already undertaking enhanced patrols in these waters. This will mean four Border Force cutters in total, and is in addition to the two coastal patrol vessels that are currently operating and aerial surveillance of the area. Last week I also requested additional help from the Ministry of Defence while we await the return of the two boats currently overseas. I am grateful that the Royal Navy has kindly offered the use of HMS “Mersey”, which started patrols on Friday.

I am also continuing to discuss with the French what more they can do to stop people from attempting to make these crossings from France in the first place. I welcome the action plan that the French outlined on Friday, which includes a commitment to increased surveillance and security in maritime areas, prevention campaigns in French coastal areas to stop people setting off in small boats in the first place, and a reinforced fight against smuggling gangs.

I am pleased to say that the National Crime Agency has also redoubled its efforts. Last week two men were arrested on suspicion of the illegal movement of migrants. In addition, we are doing important work in the home countries of would-be migrants to reduce factors which compel them to make these dangerous journeys in the first place. For example, we are helping to create jobs and build infrastructure, tackling modern slavery, providing education and delivering life-saving humanitarian assistance in response to conflicts and natural disasters. We are also doing important work to undermine organised crime groups and we have committed £2.7 billion to the humanitarian response in Syria, making us the second biggest bilateral donor to the region.

We are also on track to resettle 20,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria by 2020, as well as up to 3,000 of the most vulnerable in the Middle East and north Africa, including children at risk of exploitation and abuse. In 2017, the UK resettled more refugees than any other EU state under a national resettlement programme.

Let me reassure the House that I am continuing to monitor the issue of channel crossings daily. Right honourable and honourable Members will know that these crossings have provoked a debate. But I am not afraid to say that I think there are some legitimate questions which need to be asked. Why, for instance, are so many people choosing to cross the channel from France to the UK, when France is itself a safe country? The widely accepted international principle is that those seeking asylum should claim it in the first safe country that they reach, be that France or elsewhere. Indeed, this is what many asylum seekers do. Domestic legislation from 2004 clearly states that if an individual travels through a safe third country and fails to claim asylum, it will be taken into account in assessing the credibility of their claim. Following recent events, I have instructed my officials to look at how we can tighten this further and ensure that these provisions are working effectively.

Britain has a proud tradition of welcoming and protecting asylum seekers. We also have a long history of accepting economic migrants—people like my very own parents. But all these routes need to be safe and controlled. Getting in a rubber dinghy is not. That is why I will not accept these channel crossings as just a fact of life. Safeguarding lives and protecting the UK border are crucial Home Office priorities. Although we have obligations to genuine asylum seekers, which we will uphold, we will not stand by and allow reckless criminals to take advantage of vulnerable people. Encouraging people to dangerously cross the channel to come here is not an act of compassion. So I will continue to do all I can to stop these dangerous crossings. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by her right honourable friend the Home Secretary in the other place earlier today in respect of migrant crossings. I join her in sending our best wishes, thoughts and prayers to those injured in the Manchester Victoria station attack on New Year’s Eve. I also join her in paying tribute to the emergency services and other agencies and individuals working in the English Channel in the most distressing and dangerous circumstances. We are very grateful for all the work they do in those difficult situations.

These are serious matters and should be treated as such. Action should be taken as necessary and the Government will have the support of the Opposition in that respect. But some of the language used in the past few days by the Home Office was a little florid, to say the least, when looking at the number of refugees we are talking about. I would prefer to see urgent action taken to deal with the problem that we all can see is there.

Perhaps the Minister could answer a few questions for me. Can she confirm that the UK is bound by the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and that all agencies of the state coming into contact with refugees have to act in accordance with its provisions? Does she accept that before anyone is deemed not to be a genuine refugee the facts surrounding their case must first be examined fully? On the deployment of the Royal Navy, can she set out for the House what orders are given to those deployed in the English Channel and can she explain how the various agencies are co-ordinating and working together? I think the Statement mentioned Border Force, Immigration Enforcement, the coastguard, the National Crime Agency and the RNLI, along with the various French authorities operating in the English Channel and on mainland France. Can she also tell the House what will be the total cost to the Home Office of the Royal Naval deployment and how that will be funded? Does she have any idea of the cost per person rescued, and how many people smugglers have been prevented and detained? Can she also tell us whether the operations that were taking place in the Mediterranean have now been suspended or reduced? Can she also explain what contingency measures have been put in place so as not to leave a gaping hole in other co-ordinated efforts? I thank the Minister in advance for her response.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement without pausing for breath after the last subject. Like her and the noble Lord, I am very aware of the situation in Manchester. I am sure that she feels as I do. When you know a place well, as we both know Manchester Victoria station, these things become even more vivid in one’s mind.

This is an awful situation, but relatively small numbers are involved in the context of the international refugee position. I too wonder whether it is appropriate to focus on the recent Channel crossings or attempts to do so and whether, if we were not still in mid-Brexit mode, there would not have been a rather quieter and calmer reaction to the situation. The Statement refers to the NCA taking action. Can the Minister expand on what that action is? It talks about tackling criminal activity and says that trafficking puts lives at risk—as indeed it does—and we were told that one person has been arrested. Was that for a trafficking or smuggling offence? I would be glad for confirmation that we are not talking about immigration detention here.

Of course one agrees with the Home Secretary that getting into a rubber dinghy is not safe, but we would much prefer the “safe and legal routes to sanctuary” formula, which is well known and widely used, rather than the “safe and controlled” formula, which seems to be a newly coined phrase. Finally, the Statement refers to work in countries of origin, which of course we support, but that does not deal with people fleeing persecution or war. The UK has an obligation to consider all asylum claims properly and fairly and to grant asylum to those who are eligible, regardless of how they got here. After all, many certainly do not want to have to escape their own country by these means. Does the noble Baroness agree?

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness will have to forgive me if I do not answer every single question. As they say, I have leapt from one subject to another.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about the use of language and the UK being bound by the 1951 convention. Yes, of course; we were bound by it before we went into the EU and we will continue to be bound by it when we leave the EU. He is absolutely right that facts must be examined first, which is why we do not make a Statement without knowing the facts. On the Royal Navy and the orders given to its vessels, those are military assets operating for a civilian or non-military purpose and the first rule of any vessel at sea is to protect lives at sea. Lives must be protected and everything else comes after. However, as the Home Secretary said, we do not want vessels to provide an incentive for people to take risky journeys at sea, putting their lives at risk. I understand that the cost of the deployment is £20,000 a day. As regards other operations in the Mediterranean, Spain is experiencing high demand for migrant crossings, as is Greece, and the operations in the Mediterranean continue. If the noble Lord asked me any other questions which I have not answered, I will write to him.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked me about the individual who was arrested and whether they have been charged with anything. As the legal procedure is ongoing, I cannot comment on that, but I will try to get an answer. She also asked about examining all claims. There are provisions in EU legislation and domestic rules to make claims inadmissible but we will fully examine the claims of those for whom we are responsible.

My Lords, the whole House will applaud the measured, calm and professional way in which my noble friend has moved seamlessly from conducting a Bill through its Second Reading to dealing with this issue. Of course, everyone will agree that it is undesirable for individuals to seek to cross the channel in this way and that we should all be concerned about it. However, she makes the point, and it is clear, that the scale of this problem is tiny compared to the flows of migration and refugees in other parts of the world. Will my noble friend comment on whether it was appropriate to take two cutters from the Mediterranean, where they were part of a collaborative effort in helping to address a much bigger problem, to bring them into the channel for these purposes?

I understand my noble friend’s point, but of course it was not so much the quantum of the number of people who arrived but the sudden upsurge of arrivals, and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary made the correct decision to deal with that swiftly both to protect our border and lives at sea.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will know already that millions of pounds have been spent on massive fences around Calais and probably Dunkirk, and on equipment to scan vehicles that are about to cross the channel. The effect of these measures has been to force people who want to come to this country to resort to the most dangerous crossings you can almost possibly imagine: namely, going in dinghies at right angles across the main shipping lanes, where they are likely not to be seen and to be run down. This brings us to the question, already mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, of safe and legal routes for getting here. Is the Minister aware that the European Parliament recently passed a resolution calling for humanitarian visas along the lines of the former Nansen passport after the First World War? If they could be implemented, these would surely lead to fewer deaths, both in crossing the Mediterranean and the Sahara. I therefore urge the Government to give some serious thought to this matter.

I refer the noble Lord to the humanitarian assistance that we are giving the people in the MENA region and our commitment to resettling 20,000 refugees before 2020. He may laugh, but if ever there was a humanitarian visa, it is there.

Also, the safe and legal route to refuge is to seek asylum in the first country in which you arrive in Europe. That is the safest route. We do not want to encourage people to resort to what is, as he says, the most dangerous routes. It is right that we protect our borders but it is also right that people seeking asylum do so in the first safe country in which they arrive.

My Lords, I am a little concerned about some of the phrases used in the Statement. “People who choose to make the crossing” are words that appear more than once. I get the impression that the Government still believe that pull factors are the reason why people risk their lives to come to Britain. Am I right? If so, what evidence exists to substantiate this viewpoint? From where I sit, it seems to me that people would not choose to leave France in a rubber dinghy with their loved ones to cross the channel and pay smugglers for the privilege unless they felt that they had no choice.

I think it is important to pause for a moment to think about who benefits from smugglers taking people across the channel from a safe country. Those who benefit are organised criminals. If people choose to cross, they have chosen to cross from one safe country to another. The noble Baroness shakes her head, but she makes the point that people choose to travel from France to the UK.

My Lords, it seems to me that this all turns on disincentives to travel, on the one hand, versus the need to protect human life. The Minister was not absolutely clear on the position. Recognising convention and treaty obligations, does the role of HMS “Mersey” include an obligation to collect refugees who have managed to make it into UK territorial waters? The answer to that will be simple. If that is the case, can we be told?

Yes, the obligation of HMS “Mersey” is obviously to protect lives at sea, but of course those people’s cases will be established at some point in their journey—whether it is an asylum claim or whatever. Border officials will then determine the purpose for which those people are either going back to France or coming to the UK—presumably coming to the UK.

My Lords, on a slightly different tack, given that those seeking asylum seem to be mainly Iranians, and the number of Iranians seeking asylum in the past two years has been steadily reducing, is work being done to discern whether this is an increase in number or a transfer of route? Is work being done to understand the dynamics of exactly what is going on?

Work is most certainly being done to understand the dynamics of what is going on. I know that talks are ongoing to try to resolve the situation.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the plight of the “Sea Watch 3” vessel off the coast of Malta, which has on board 32 people including women and children rescued partly by the assistance of the Welsh lifeboatman Robin Jenkins, to which the Government are now refusing to consider giving any refuge? Is she aware that just a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister congratulated Robin Jenkins on receiving one of her Points of Light awards for outstanding volunteers for his work in rescuing refugees? Is it not totally hypocritical of the Government to feign admiration for his work while refusing to help its fulfilment?

I have to confess to the noble Lord that I do not know of this boat off the coast of Malta, but if he will indulge me, I will get him an answer in writing.

My Lords, I served on the committee of this House that considered Operation Sophia, and we christened our report Operation Sophia: A Failed Mission. We talk about people as criminals, but in most of the areas where refugees come from, it is just regarded as a business. That, I fear is what we are to an extent facing here. Unless we tackle it vigorously and early and behave generously towards our French colleagues, we will have a much bigger crisis on our hands.

I offer my support to the Government and encourage them to take a firm line at the time, because that is the overall will of the British people. As has been said, these people proceed to Britain from a safe harbour—the country of France.

I thank my noble friend for his supportive words. Of course, we all recall what happened with Operation Sophia. We are working with the French because they feel exactly the same as we do—that this situation needs to be dealt with swiftly and carefully.

My Lords, according to news reports, these desperate people are saying to reporters that they are risking their lives to travel across the channel because they are not being dealt with humanely or justly in France. If it turns out that France is not taking a humanitarian approach to this and the UK is, is that a reason why we should not allow these people to seek asylum in this country?

Secondly, how will the UK leaving the European Union affect such traffic, bearing in mind that the Dublin III regulation applies to EU countries? Presumably it will no longer apply to us when we are outside the EU.

France is bound by the same European provisions as us and by the 1951 convention. France is a safe country, whatever the people choosing to make the journey from France to here say, and a member of the EU, which so many people want to stay part of—although not me. Post-Brexit, if we get a deal, we will be bound by Dublin III and comply with its measures during the implementation period. Post-Brexit, we want a new system that looks something like the Dublin system, although it has weakened in the past couple of years, and meets our obligations as a country—which we have met for centuries —to act as a safe haven for people fleeing war-torn countries and persecution.

My Lords, I want to return to the question asked by my noble friend about the two cutters taken from their operations. If they are not where they were, the people in these circumstances are not being stopped. Do we have some figures on the disadvantage now being obtained because we brought two cutters home? What kind of system do we have when we have to bring two cutters back from their essential work because there is nobody else here to deal with this issue? Frankly, it is not a terribly good situation.

I want to assure my noble friend that this measure is not permanent. It is to deal with a sudden upsurge in the influx of people crossing the channel to come to this country. It is right to take cutters from elsewhere, but this operation is not by the UK alone. We are operating in cohort with our international partners but we do not want them here any longer than they need to be.

My Lords, I worry whether the Government have the political courage to face the realities of this situation. I note that the Home Secretary asked what must be a rhetorical question because the answer is so obvious: why are so many people choosing to cross the channel from France to the UK when France is a safe country? The answer is perfectly obvious. Are the Government not aware that the rate of migration across the Mediterranean started at a very small level, changing a great deal very rapidly and becoming quite unsustainable only when it was established as a safe method of moving, helped by the Royal Navy’s HMS “Albion”? Are the Government aware that this could happen next summer?

The Government are totally aware of the consequences of a small number of migrants coming across the channel in dinghies suddenly escalating into something much bigger, hence the swift action that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary had the political courage to take.

My Lords, can the Minister establish the truth about a number of reports in national newspapers that the French are turning back people coming into France from Italy on the basis that they are claiming refugee status? Can we find out where the truth lies?

I am sure that I cannot point to where the truth lies at this point at the Dispatch Box. First, do not believe everything that you read in the papers. The truth is that the UK is a great country. Quite often, we beat ourselves up about all sorts of things, but lots of people want to come here. I will not pass judgment at this point in time on what France is doing, but we are working very closely with our French partners, who are helping us in our endeavour.