Sajid Javid has defended questioning whether people risking their lives crossing the English Channel are “genuine” refugees.
The Home Secretary, appearing in the Commons, also defended his decision to declare the migrant crossings a “major incident” after accusations the move was more to do with “positioning for the forthcoming Tory leadership battle”.
More than 200 migrants have arrived in the UK by boat since November and 543 attempts to cross the Channel were recorded in 2018.
Mr Javid told MPs that he was “continuing to monitor the issue of Channel crossings daily” and acknowledged that the situation had “provoked a debate”.
He said: “I’m not afraid to say that I think there are some legitimate questions that need to be asked, why for instance are so many people to cross the Channel from France to the UK when France itself is a safe country?”
“The principle of the first safe country is well established and widely accepted in international law”, he added.
On whether it should have been declared a major incident, he said: “There has been a significant increase in the number of crossings through this method, through small boats across the English Channel.
“As I said 543 attempts in 2018, not all successful, 40% roughly disrupted but 80% of those taking place in the last three months particularly in the month of December so there is a definite tend of increase there and it needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible.”
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott cautioned MPs to be “careful not to heighten a potentially toxic atmosphere around migration”.
She added: “The Home Secretary knows that little over 200 people arrived from crossing the Channel in the entire final three months of last year, one migrant making that dangerous crossing is one too many but does he appreciate that some people might think that describing this as a major incident is possibly an overstatement when you consider that at the height of the Mediterranean crisis Greece was seeing hundreds of people a day landing on its beaches.
“Unkind people might be forced to conclude that this major incident had little to do with a national crisis but more to do with positioning for the forthcoming Tory leadership battle,” she said.
Ms Abbott also criticised Mr Javid for questioning the validity of the refugees claims, she said: “Taking the failure to claim in the first safe country into account is one thing, claiming that it entirely nullifies the asylum claim is quite wrong.
“Refugees may have cultural, family or language reasons to claim in this country.
“Does he understand that it is not for him as Home Secretary or anyone else to claim that someone is not a genuine refugee without examining their case?”
Mr Javid hit back accusing Ms Abbott of turning the issue into a “political football”, adding: “This about protecting human life and protecting our borders.”
But Stella Creasy said he should spend “less time talking to the alt-right on Twitter” and instead focus on helping the 250 unaccompanied children living in camps in Dunkirk and Calais.
The Labour MP for Walthamstow said there have been 972 human rights abuses at these camps, 244 involving “police violence”, adding: “The Home Secretary said he was there with the French police when they are making disruptive measures, they are putting bleach into the tents of refugees.
“If, as he says he does, he cares about these people, he will spend less time on Twitter talking to the alt-right and more time out in Calais working out how we deal with this humanitarian crisis now.”
Mr Javid said he did not “accept that description of France at all” calling it a “good partner” and a “perfectly safe country”.
And he hit back at Ms Creasy, saying: “What she should think about very carefully, is indirectly encouraging people to get into these small boats and cross the channel and that would put more lives at risk.”
But another Labour MP, Emma Hardy, also accused him of using the crisis to further leadership aspirations, asking: “Could he explain how successful he found exploiting the acts of desperate and vulnerable refugees, misrepresenting conventions an stirring up hatred in his own personal ambition to become the next leader of the Conservative Party.”
The Home Secretary dismissed the accusation, replying: “Only serious questions deserve an answer.”