Government refuses to rule out wave machine to deter Channel crossings

Ministers accused of making dangerous dinghy voyages more likely when EU asylum schemes end after Brexit transition

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 02 December 2020 18:44 GMT
Immigration minister refuses to rule out 'giant wave machine' in English Channel

The minister for immigration compliance has refused to rule out sending asylum seekers to a remote island or disused oil platforms, or creating a “giant wave machine” to stop boats from crossing the Channel.

Chris Philp appeared to laugh when questioned by parliament’s Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday over the reported proposals.

When asked by the committee’s chair, Yvette Cooper, to confirm that the government was no longer looking at setting up an asylum processing centre on Ascension Island, a remote UK territory in the Atlantic Ocean, he said it had “explored a wide range of options”.

Mr Philp added: “I don’t want to give any definitive commentary on what we have and haven’t thought about, or rule in or out what steps may be taken in the future.”

When pressed by Ms Cooper in a tense exchange, the minister refused to rule out the use of Ascension Island but said there were “no current plans to do that”.

He gave the same response over reported proposals to send asylum seekers to decommissioned oil platforms in the North Sea, and to generate waves in the Channel that would force dinghies back to France.

“You should at least be able to rule these things out,” Ms Cooper said. “Can you just rule out ever having giant wave machines in the Channel as part of your policy?”

Mr Philp repeated: “We don’t have any current plans to do that.”

Dan O’Mahoney, who heads the Home Office’s response to Channel crossings, said his department had not looked at the wave machine proposals.

Officials said that the UK had provided France with £192m of funding since September 2014 aimed at stopping migrants crossing the Channel by tunnel, train, ferry and dinghy.

The number of small boat crossings has increased dramatically, despite the home secretary vowing to make the route “unviable”.

An estimated 8,200 migrants have crossed the Channel in small boats so far this year, although numbers have fallen in the past two months.

The government has vowed to return migrants to mainland Europe if other countries are deemed responsible for their asylum claims.

Mr Philp evaded answering several questions on whether such transfers would be harder after the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.

Negotiations continue over a potential EU-wide replacement for the Dublin regulation, which the UK currently uses to send migrants to countries it believes to be responsible for their asylum claims.

The Home Affairs Committee was told that an agreement has not been reached, and that negotiations have not started on any bilateral agreements with individual EU states.

The government also expects to lose access to the Eurodac fingerprint database, which the UK uses for identifying migrants who have previously claimed asylum in other EU countries.

Mr Philp said the UK would “continue cooperating closely with European nation states” and “rapidly enter bilateral discussions” over returns and information-sharing if there is no EU-level agreement.

However, MPs questioned how alternative plans could be put in place by 1 January if bilateral negotiations had not yet started and would have to be held over the festive period.

Ms Cooper said the evidence suggested that there would be no legal provision after the Brexit transition period ends to return asylum seekers to EU countries where they previously sought protection.

“The consequence of what looks most likely to happen is that in January, and at least until you have any new arrangements in place, it will be much harder for you to implement your own stated policy on returns,” she told government representatives.

Mr Philp said the Dublin regulation was “not a particularly effective mechanism at all”, adding: “Our number-one priority is reaching bilateral agreement. In the absence of those, we will approach states on a case by case basis.

“We’re certainly not going to be giving up on returning people who have crossed the Channel from a manifestly safe country.”

The evidence session, which was part of an ongoing inquiry into Channel crossings, heard that the loss of the Dublin system may also make it harder for unaccompanied children who have reached Europe to seek asylum in the UK.

Under the UK’s immigration rules, applications can only be made by people physically present at processing centres such as an embassy.

However, large numbers of unaccompanied minors are currently trapped in squalid camps on Greek islands, where they have no current prospect of reaching the British embassy in Athens.

Others have already reached northern France and would have to reverse their journey to reach Paris or another European capital.

Mr Philp refused to say whether unaccompanied children “stranded in EU countries” such as Greece would have a lesser chance of being granted asylum in the UK after the end of the Brexit transition period.

The minister said they would be able to apply under family reunion processes, which he said saw 10 times more minors reunited with relatives in the UK last year than the Dublin regulation.

“Any child would be able to apply under our existing rules where there are compelling and compassionate circumstances,” he added.

But Ms Cooper said British immigration rules made seeking asylum harder for unaccompanied children in Europe because of their difficulty in reaching UK embassies, and because of financial support thresholds and other requirements.

“You are making it harder for young people, for teenagers and children who are alone in Europe and have family in the UK, to find a safe and legal route to join them … You also expose them to much greater risk that they will end up being exploited by smugglers and trafficking gangs,” she added.

“You are currently creating an incentive for some of those young people to make dangerous journeys, which this whole inquiry has been trying to prevent.”

Mr Philp did not say whether the government would change its processes to allow children to apply without reaching a British embassy or asylum processing centre. He said he would respond to the issue in a letter to the committee.

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