The Home Secretary has announced he is treating a surge in illegal Channel crossings as a “major incident” after a dozen migrants were rescued from small boats off the Kent coast in the space of seven hours.
Two boats were intercepted on Friday morning containing a total of 12 men, prompting urgent calls for the British and French authorities to better tackle people smuggling operations in northern France.
Sajid Javid said he was cutting short a Christmas holiday to return to the UK and was ensuring “everything possible” was being done to disrupt and prosecute organised people-smuggling gangs.
He said he was appointing a “gold commander” to oversee the situation and provide daily updates, but there were also calls from MPs for the Royal Navy to intercept migrant boats, or for the UK Border Force to recall its cutters – patrol boats used in the Mediterranean.
But campaigners and politicians accused both the British and French authorities of focusing their efforts more on heavy-handed policing against refugees living in makeshift encampments in Calais and Dunkirk than on identifying and prosecuting people-smuggling gangs operating in the area.
In the latest incident, an inflatable boat containing four migrants was rescued at around 3am on Friday, and six hours later, at around 9am, another small boat was intercepted with eight people on board. All of the men were Iranian except one Syrian national.
It comes after nine people, including three children, were intercepted on a beach in Sandgate, Kent, on Thursday and more than 40 migrants, presenting themselves as Iraqi, Iranian and Afghan, were rescued from the Channel on Christmas Day.
Josh Hallam, field manager for Calais-based charity Help Refugees, claimed there was a lack of effort by both British and French police on disbanding people-smuggling gangs behind the crossings, while police hostility against refugees in Calais and Dunkirk had reached new heights in recent months.
“Anti-exploitation and anti-slavery policing is so important in this situation, but it feels on the ground like the majority of policing attention is going towards harassing vulnerable refugees rather than looking for smuggling gangs and those who are exploiting people and making that situation worse,” Mr Hallam said.
“There’s no cooperation by the police on the ground to try and share information about this or even talk about it. There’s no communication between us and the police in any way.”
Mr Hallam rebuked concerns about “pull factors”, saying: “There are some pretty strong push factors rather than pull factors, those being an absolute lack of information, people having no idea about their rights, police brutality every day, and health issues such as hyperthermia.
“We’re in a situation whereby there’s going to be comparisons drawn to people getting across the Mediterranean and bodies washing up on the coast. That’s what’s going to happen if we carry on the way we’re going.”
Yvette Cooper MP, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, accused both governments of not doing enough to curb people-smuggling, saying: “The British and French authorities have known for some time about the risks posed by criminal gangs of people-smugglers along the coast.
“They have been active in encampments over many years, but much more coordinated French and British action is needed to tackle them.
“Given the concerns raised by the Chief Inspector of Borders about how overstretched the border force is at many ports and the problems faced dealing with smaller boats, we also need to know what resource and cooperation plans the Home Office has to address this.”
Ms Cooper said despite the committee raising concerns about the issue in November and being told by the Home Office work was under way to try to reduce the number of boats, the problem was “clearly getting worse”.
She added: “For families and children to end up in small boats in the Channel in the middle of winter is incredibly dangerous. There is a real risk of tragedy if urgent action isn’t taken. People-smuggler gangs offering these precarious journeys for profit are putting lives at risk.”
John Woodcock, a member of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, said: “The public is losing confidence in the struggling Border Force. It's time to stop the rot by sending in the Royal Navy.”
“If the civilian force can't cope, the Navy must stop this crisis becoming a catastrophe,” he told The Sun.
After Mr Javid declared the crossings a “major incident”, the Right Rev Trevor Willmott, bishop of Dover, called on British authorities to remember those attempting the crossing were people in need.
“It is crucial that we all remember that we are dealing with human beings here,” he said, adding that every life was precious.
Addressing the reasons behind the rise in numbers of migrant boats on the south coast, Leonard Doyle, of the UN Migration Agency, said political instability and a rise in anti-migrant sentiment across Europe in recent years had led the authorities to “tighten up” controls on potential refugees, pushing more towards the Channel.
“It is clear that the European Union has really doubled down on the migration issue. There’s definitely a consensus that migration needs to be managed in a more controlled way,” he said.
“There are much tighter restrictions on migrants. Many are being returned from France to Italy, and the Italians, as we know, are getting much tougher on it. A lot more people are being deported, so if you’ve exhausted all your appeals you might well think they’re about to send me home, I don’t want to do that.
“So the message may well be getting out there that Europe is tightening up so you need to move somewhere else, especially if Britain isn’t going to be part of Europe.”
Mr Doyle said that in response to the illegal Channel crossings, the government’s priority must be primarily saving lives, and then to focus on “law and order” in the form of tracking down and prosecuting the smuggling gangs behind the crossings.
“It’s the smugglers we need to be focused on rather than the people. The people want to get to a better life, they don’t necessarily know where they’re going or what risk they’re getting into,” he said.
The Home Office said Sajid Javid had asked for an urgent call with his French counterpart over the weekend to reaffirm the continuing need for the UK and France to work closely together to tackle the problem.
He has also commissioned detailed options from Border Force about the provision of additional vessels in the Channel, including another Border Force cutter, and whether this is likely to encourage more people to try and make the crossing rather than act as a deterrent.
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