UK approach to small boats crisis branded ‘shameful’ by former Tory adviser

Priti Patel tells MPs: ‘In terms of toughness, I have not ruled anything out’

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Thursday 25 November 2021 17:02

The UK and France’s response to the migrant crisis in the English Channel has been branded “shameful” by a Tory peer who served as a senior adviser to William Hague during his time as foreign secretary.

Arminka Helic’s comment came as Sir Keir Starmer accused home secretary Priti Patel of chasing headlines with threats to turn back small boats while failing to achieve anything to resolve the problem, which on Wednesday saw at least 27 people drown after a dinghy sank.

Ms Patel today told the House of Commons that “in terms of toughness… I have not ruled anything out”.

Delivering a statement to MPs on the Channel tragedy, the Home Secretary confirmed that she has authorised Border Force to use “push back” tactics to force boats back to the French coast.

She told MPs she was considering “offshoring” the processing of migrants or sending them to another country while their applications for asylum are being considered.

And she said that in a phone call with French interior minister Gerald Darmanin today she repeated the UK’s offer of personnel to take part in joint patrols to intercept vessels launching from beaches, as well as technology to detect movements of vehicles carrying migrants to embarkation points.

After France rejected the offer of uniformed British police or border officials on sovereignty grounds, Ms Patel floated proposals for “unwarranted” officers with no power of arrest who could assist with surveillance duties.

“We have put forward a very, very significant technology offer which does include enhanced surveillance,” she told MPs. “It does include ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) on the roads coming up to the beaches.

“We’ve also offered to put more officers – unwarranted because they will not take warranted officers – but these are the things I will be working through very specifically now because the status quo cannot persist.”

But Starmer was dismissive of her promises of action, telling the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast: “To be honest, I’m sick of the home secretary playing to the headlines on this with grand statements about what she’s going to do - turning boats back and all the rest of it - but actually not achieving anything in relation to this issue.”

And Baroness Helic said the focus by the UK and France on security measures to block sailings was “shameful for both countries”.

Lady Helic, who fled to Britain from Bosnia during the 1990s war and served as a foreign policy adviser to the Tories from 1998 onwards, told Times Radio: “We shouldn’t be having a ding-dong ping-pong with people whose destinies are connected to the most horrible experiences that they would have had and they are looking for a better life or they’re looking simply for safety.”

She called on the UK to show “leadership” in devising an international solution to the problem of 85 million refugees and displaced people all over the world.

“Don’t think of these people as these nameless zombies that are crossing different countries,” she said. “They at some point had a home and their children went to school, they had a street that they lived in, they had friends and relatives, they probably played football just like you do.

“They probably watched something on TV that they all enjoyed, and they had their favourite meal, and they had their favourite pastime. They’re people just like us. Think of them as another human being and think of yourself as being lucky to have been born in this country because it could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any one of us.”

Ms Patel told the House of Commons it was a “complete myth and fallacy” to suggest the UK should not look at all options to deal with the migrant crisis, including stopping boats entering territorial waters.

The UK needs to work with other countries to tackle the small boats crisis but there was “no silver bullet” solution available, she said.

“We cannot do it alone,” said Ms Patel. “We continue to work closely with the French to prevent crossings.

“More than 20,000 have been stopped this year… we have dismantled 17 organised criminal groups and secured over 400 arrests and 65 convictions.

“But this crisis continues, clearly demonstrating we need to do more together.

“This is a complicated issue and there is no simple fix. It does need a Herculean effort and it will be impossible without close co-operation between all international partners and agencies.”

She added: “What happened yesterday was a dreadful shock, it was not a surprise but it is also a reminder of how vulnerable people are put at peril when in the hands of criminal gangs.

“There is also no quick fix. This is about addressing long-term pull factors, smashing the criminal gangs that treat human beings as cargo and tackling supply chains.”

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds urged Ms Patel to “urgently reinstate” the Dubs Scheme to provide safe routes to the UK for unaccompanied child migrants, which was set up by David Cameron following a campaign for Labour peer and wartime refugee Alf Dubs.

“The Dubs Scheme was closed down having helped only 480 unaccompanied children rather than the 3,000 that it expected to help,” said Mr Thomas-Symonds. Will that scheme be urgently reinstated?”

The shadow home secretary also highlighted new figures showing that in its first year of operation, the new UK Resettlement Scheme had helped only 770 people, compared to the 5,000 promised on its launch.

Ms Patel also came under pressure to name a date for the commencement of the resettlement scheme for 20,000 Afghans announced at the time of the Taliban takeover in August. But she was unable to say when the scheme will open, saying that discussions were ongoing with the UN High Commission for Refugees on how it will operate.

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