Calais crisis: Theresa May criticised over pledge to help French deport migrants to Africa

UK politicians, the French authorities and Eurotunnel are blaming each other for failing to get to grips with the flow of migrants

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Theresa May has come under fire over a “misguided” pledge to help the French deport more migrants back to Africa in response to the Calais crisis.

Critics said the Home Secretary should concentrate on easing the plight of thousands of migrants making increasingly desperate attempts to get into Britain through the Channel Tunnel.

Her intervention came as British politicians, the French authorities and Eurotunnel sought to blame each other for failing to get to grips with the flow of migrants.

Ms May chaired a meeting of Whitehall’s emergency Cobra committee after 1,500 migrants tried to storm the tunnel’s entrance and the death of a Sudanese man when he was hit by a lorry.

She acknowledged that “a number of people” had made it to Britain in recent days, although a senior MP put the figure at close to 150.

The chaotic scenes, combined with huge disruption to holidaymakers and hauliers either side of the Channel, have piled pressure on the Government and fuelled criticism of the French authorities by Conservative MPs.

The scale of the problem was revealed by Eurotunnel, which disclosed it had already thwarted more than 37,000 to cross into Britain this year.

Along with moves to erect new fencing around the tunnel, Ms May signalled that Britain would work with France to repatriate migrants to west Africa.

“Actually the answer to this problem is to ensure we are reducing the number of migrants who are trying to come from Africa across into Europe, that we break that link between making that dangerous journey, as it often is for people, and coming to settle in Europe,” she said.

“We do that by working with countries upstream, the work we are going to be doing with the French on returning people to West Africa and also on dealing with the criminal gangs making a profit out of people’s misery.”

However, the repatriation move would barely have an impact on the situation in Calais as most of the migrants in the area are from the east African nations of Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia or from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Saira Grant, legal and policy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: “Theresa May’s proposal of a repatriation scheme whereby people in Calais are removed to ‘back to West Africa’ is misguided.

“This proposed scheme has not yet provided details on how it will distinguish between asylum-seekers from other regions and perceived ‘illegal immigrants’ from West Africa. You cannot repatriate someone to an unstable, unsafe region.”

Don Flynn, director of Migrants Rights Network, said: “The French and British authorities should put together a task force which can engage with the people in Calais on terms which acknowledge the humanitarian issues as the root cause of the problem.”

The migrants’ focus has switched from the port of Calais, where lorries now queue in a protected zone, to the tunnel railhead at Coquelles a few miles away.

Work to erect new fencing at Coquelles is being accelerated and should be completed by the weekend.

Ms May said the Cobra meeting also agreed to undertake “some more urgent work with government departments but also with Eurotunnel on further measures… to prevent people getting into the tunnel”.

The French have deployed 120 more police officers into the area in attempt to control the situation, while Ms May has promised another £7m for new fencing, sniffer dogs and other security measures.

The Labour MP Keith Vaz, who chairs the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said he had witnessed 148 migrants successfully make the journey illegally to Britain on 27 July.

The Conservative MP for Folkestone, Damian Collins, blamed the French authorities for the chaotic scenes. “They have allowed people willingly to break into the Channel Tunnel site. I can’t believe they would be that lax in protecting an airport or another sensitive facility,” he said.

The Road Haulage Association said French troops should patrol the port of Calais, warning that the crisis was putting lorry drivers’ lives at risk.