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Illegal Seaborne Migration

Volume 798: debated on Wednesday 5 June 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Immigration Minister to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Every crossing attempted by migrants, often in unsuitable and very small boats, is life-threatening for those on board. These attempts not only represent a hazard to other vessels but threaten the safety of the Border Force, coastguard and lifeboat crews who come to their rescue. The Government are committed to preventing migrant crossings in small boats. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary declared a major incident in December last year, and our heightened response remains in place.

In January, the Home Secretary met his counterpart Monsieur Castaner and agreed a joint action plan to tackle seaborne arrivals. He will be speaking to him again later this week. The joint action plan builds on the extensive work we have undertaken in partnership with France over the past few years, including under the 2018 Sandhurst treaty. It demonstrates the strength and depth of our bilateral relationship and both countries’ enduring determination to secure our shared border and prevent illegal migration through France. Through measures such as increased surveillance and co-ordination of our joint response via the joint information centre, the plan enhances our robust border security.

The solution is not all about increased surveillance in the UK, but also about preventing vessels leaving France in the first place. We have recently delivered drones and other surveillance equipment to France, enabling its law enforcement officers to intercept and disrupt attempted crossings. We continue to look at a range of tactical options that work on both land and sea. Those attempting to cross should be aware that their efforts will be in vain. Since January, more than 30 people who arrived illegally in the UK in small boats have been returned to France and other member states under the Dublin regulation. We have many more in the pipeline for return.

Finally, we are tackling the organised crime gangs who are exploiting vulnerable and desperate individuals. Only yesterday, a French court sentenced two men to prison for helping migrants to make the treacherous journey across the channel. The summer months and settled weather will present us with further challenges, but we will continue to work co-operatively with France to secure our borders and seek to prevent further crossings taking place”.

My Lords, can the Minister set out for the House what further action the Government plan to take with our French partners to deal with the criminal gangs that are exploiting these vulnerable people? Of the people who arrive here and are picked up by the authorities having crossed the Channel, how many of them are making asylum applications and what is the timescale now for concluding those applications? Finally, what do the Government expect the commanding officers and crew of ships using this busy seaway to do on sighting small, unsuitable craft attempting to cross the Channel?

I thank the noble Lord for his questions. Most of the people who cross the Channel do claim asylum and the vast majority of them are Iranian men. He asked what work the UK is doing with the French to address this problem further. I referred to the joint action plan in the Statement. In more detail, it includes: over £6 million, or €7 million, of investment in new security equipment; increased CCTV coverage of beaches and ports; air surveillance, shared intelligence and a mutual commitment to conduct returns as quickly as possible under international and domestic laws. Just over half of that investment will come from the £44.5 million already allocated under the Sandhurst treaty agreement on UK-France co-operation, signed by the PM and President Macron in January 2018. In addition, there is £3.2 million of new funding for equipment and measures to tackle illegal migration by small boats, such as CCTV, night goggles and number plate recognition capability, which I think noble Lords would agree will help the UK and France to crack down on illegal activity.

To answer a further question asked by the noble Lord on determining asylum claims, we try to do that within six months. He asked a final question—

The prime objective of the boats which find people in the English Channel is to save lives at sea. That is always the prime objective.

My Lords, the Statement describes how dangerous the Channel crossing is and says that 30 people have been returned to France and other member states under the Dublin regulation. How many asylum seekers have been allowed to remain in the UK and what is the UK doing to provide safe routes for these people, so that they do not have to risk their lives crossing the Channel? What do the Government intend to do if the UK is no longer a member of the EU, no longer party to the Dublin regulation and no longer able to return asylum seekers to other member states?

I do not have the actual number for how many asylum claims have been successful but, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, most of the people who arrive claim asylum and we attempt to determine those claims within six months. On the Dublin regulation, clearly we will meet our obligations on asylum for people who claim it in this country. Returns under Dublin actually make up a relatively small proportion of the people who we go on to return, but we will continue to work with the French and other European partners on returns. In terms of safe routes, at the heart of this issue is that people should claim asylum in the first safe country where they arrive and not make dangerous journeys across the Channel, which is of course one of the most congested shipping lanes in the world. It is an incredibly dangerous place in which to be in a small boat.

My Lords, I happen to know this part of the Kent coast very well and, as a former Excise Minister, have some knowledge of two of the cutters recently deployed in the Channel. I have two questions for the Minister. First, the people of Folkestone and the surrounding towns and villages are well known for their hospitality to refugees. The churches have played a particularly important part in recent times. However, the reality in this part of Kent is that social services and the health service are extremely stretched. What additional assistance is being given to social services and the health service in order for them to cope with the impact of people rescued from the seas in this way? They have real needs, and the social services and the health service are stretched.

Secondly, the tasks we ask of the men and women who do such excellent service on the cutters are difficult and dangerous. What additional help is being given in relation to their welfare and training to enable them to do this?

I recognise exactly the point made by the noble Lord about the welcome that refugees and asylum seekers have had and how welcoming organisations such as the Church have been. Starting with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church has been very generous in terms of community sponsorship schemes for new arrivals, for which we commend it. Throughout our debates, we have been clear—and I think that Parliament has recognised it—that in respect of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, for example, we will ask local authorities to take only the number that they have the capacity to hold. In places such as those talked about the noble Lord—for instance, Folkestone—the national redistribution scheme has been in place for some time, because it cannot be incumbent on one single local authority to take all the new arrivals. Local authorities have been very generous to this end.

As I said earlier, the vast majority of the individuals who have attempted to cross the Channel have declared themselves as Iranian. Some who have gone on to claim asylum have declared their conversion to Christianity. Therefore, I assume that they would have been Muslims converting to Christianity, but I cannot say for definite. However, a number of asylum claims have been based on conversion to Christianity.

My Lords, the Minister has identified Iranians crossing the Channel as refugees. The situation for Iranian citizens is dire, which is due in greater part to sanctions targeting Iran. Are sanctions imposed to achieve policy change? If so, is destituting Iranians helping to achieve this, rather than impacting the leadership?

The noble Viscount is straying into territory that is perhaps not in my purview; however, I am not seeking to evade the question other than to say that I recognise the point he makes and it is clear that a lot of arrivals in the country at the moment are Iranians.

My Lords, I feel sympathy for the Minister because it is quite clear that our system is not working. We declared an emergency about this situation last year and it has not got any better; if anything, it has actually got worse. Clearly, we have to work closely with the French, but we should have enough ships and assets ourselves to ensure that we can tighten up the Channel—I would call it the English Channel rather than the short straits; I do not recognise the term used in the Question. It is clear that we need to stop these boats when they set off from the French coast. We are allowed to operate our ships, drones and other things there. We can do that and stop them before they get across. Clearly, they think that they can get away with it, otherwise they would not keep coming. They keep coming and putting themselves at risk because the system is not working.

The noble Lord will recollect what I said to his noble friend Lord Kennedy about the bilateral effort we are making with the French. He is absolutely right that people should be stopped before they get into a boat—in fact, stopped upstream even before that—because they are making such dangerous journeys. It is not only the ships; intelligence, surveillance and sharing of information through the CCIC is very helpful in this. He is right, it is a pressure and we have to deal with it.