After declaring a dramatic increase in dinghy crossings from France a “major incident”, Sajid Javid claimed that those attempting the journey may not be “genuine asylum seekers”.
“People shouldn’t be taking this very dangerous journey and if they do we need to send a very strong message that you won’t succeed,” he said during a visit to Dover.
“You’re coming from France, which is a safe country, you’re coming to the UK in almost every case you’re claiming asylum in the UK, but if you were a real genuine asylum seeker then you could have done that in another safe country.
“We need to send a strong message that these gangs that are preying on you and selling a false prospectus – they won’t succeed.”
Mr Javid added: “If you do somehow make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure that you are often not successful because we need to break that link, and to break that link means we can save more lives.”
Critics called the remarks “disgusting” and said any attempt to interfere with asylum applications or prejudge the outcome would be unlawful.
The home secretary later said officials would “process that application in the normal way” for anyone reaching British shores.
He has announced that two more Border Force cutters will patrol the English Channel following a dramatic increase in attempted crossings over the festive period.
A total of 539 people attempted the journey in 2018, with 80 per cent of crossings coming in the last three months of the year.
Following criticism of the decision to label the crossings a major incident – in comparison, Italy and Greece has seen the arrival of more than 1 million migrants during the Mediterranean refugee crisis – he insisted the numbers “were significant”.
“There has been a real step-change [with] attempts in the last three months and we want to make sure we are doing everything we can to stop that,” Mr Javid added.
Diane Abbott, shadow home secretary, said: “It is not for Sajid Javid to claim that asylum seekers may not be genuine. He cannot know. We have a system for determining that.”
Fellow Labour MP Stella Creasy called his remarks “utterly disgusting” and accused the home secretary of normalising anti-refugee rhetoric.
“The asylum system in France is completely deadlocked and I fear deliberately so – they should be challenged on that,” she wrote on Twitter.
“But none of that means Britain can absolve itself of responsibility to refugees.
“People will continue to die and be at mercy of traffickers all the time politicians pretend to play tough for votes rather than recognise why people flee.”
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Ed Davey said: “The home secretary’s comments about refugees crossing the Channel show that the Tories’ nasty, hostile environment is alive and well.
“Many of these people have fled war in Syria or persecution in Iran. For the home secretary to suggest – on the basis of no evidence whatsoever – that they are not ‘genuine’ asylum seekers is completely unacceptable. For the government to summarily deny their claims would be unlawful and inhumane.”
Nichola Carter, an expert in immigration law at Carter Thomas Solicitors, told The Independent that interference with asylum applications by migrants crossing the Channel would be “absolutely unlawful”.
“Anybody is entitled to apply for asylum, and the Home Office has a legal duty to receive any applications,” she added.
“If they are refused it needs to be done under the usual means… until the claims have been assessed nobody can say who these people are and whether they’ve got a legitimate claim. Either France or the UK has to take responsibility for processing them.”
Ms Carter said that officials can consider whether applicants have passed through safe countries before seeking asylum, but that it does not invalidate claims.
“It’s a really worrying statement for a minister to make,” she added. “When ministers make these statements, officials can start to behave in a really blunt way that eventually starts to erode the rule of law.”
Paul Hook, head of campaigns at the charity Refugee Action, said: “The home secretary must remember that these are people who have fled their homes, and they each deserve a decent, humanitarian and understanding response.
“This situation demands our compassion and cool, calm heads, and we hope the home secretary will reflect this in his statements.”
Dr Lisa Doyle, director of advocacy at the Refugee Council, said Mr Javid’s comments were “deeply concerning”.
She added: “The outcome of an asylum application cannot be prejudged before it has been made and must be processed on its individual merit, irrespective of how that person reached the country.
“Let us not forget that we are talking about people who are in desperate need of protection, having fled countries with prolific human rights abuses.
“What is more, we are hearing time and again that the conditions in France do not make people feel safe, with migrant camps being razed to the ground and people experiencing violence from the authorities.
“It’s a shame that the home secretary seems to need reminding that seeking asylum is a right, and the UK has an obligation to assess claims fairly and grant protection to those who need it.”
Yvette Cooper, Labour chair of the Home Affairs Committee, is among MPs calling for the government to make safe and legal ways of seeking asylum available to reduce demand for crossings.
“Britain has a long history of giving sanctuary to those fleeing persecution and of upholding international law on refugees and asylum,” she said. “That means asylum claims have to be determined according to the law and the circumstances of every individual case, not as an arbitrary political decision supposedly to deter others.
“The focus in the Channel right now should be on saving lives and preventing people getting exploited by criminal gangs or put into unsafe boats in the first place.”
Oxfam’s head of government relations, Jon Date, said: “If the home secretary is serious about protecting lives, he should provide more safe options for people seeking asylum. This includes changing the restrictive rules on family reunion so that people with relatives in the UK can apply to live with them.”
Following talks with the National Crime Agency (NCA) and other officials on Monday, Mr Javid redeployed two cutters from overseas to join HMC Vigilant, which is already patrolling off the south coast.
He also pledged improved cooperation between French and UK law enforcement agencies, more overt and covert work to disrupt crossings, and said that migrants would be returned to France where possible.
But the home secretary acknowledged that if Border Force vessels pick up migrants in British waters, they would be taken to a port in Britain.
The migrants, mainly claiming to be from Iran and Syria, include women, children and people found suffering from hypothermia.
Sporadic crossings have been seen since the start of the Mediterranean refugee crisis in 2014, but numbers in the Channel started to increase in November.
The NCA, which works to combat people-smuggling, told The Independent that all boats recently intercepted were launched from France, and said that while some launches involved criminal groups, others were “opportunistic”.
Investigators believe that increased security in Calais, where migrants have previously boarded lorries through the Channel Tunnel, and other French ports may have contributed to the spike in dinghy crossings.
Unseasonably calm weather and sea conditions could also be a factor behind the sudden influx – a pattern previously seen with migrant boat launches by people-smugglers in Libya.
Despite the high-profile closure of the Jungle in Calais, migrants have remained at informal camps along the northern French coast, and smugglers continue to open new routes across Europe from arrival points in Italy, Greece and Spain.
Chris Hogben, head of the NCA-led Invigor organised immigration crime taskforce, said: “Our assessment is that more of these types of attempts to reach the UK are likely.”
He added that the organised criminals behind the most recent attempts are in the main not UK-based, and that several suspected facilitators have been arrested and charged in France.
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