Turning back migrant boats at sea ‘could be key component in tackling crossings’

PA

Turning migrant boats in the Channel back to France could be a “critical component” in tackling the surge in crossings to the UK, a minister has suggested.

But the French government is yet to agree to the tactic, Home Office minister for immigration compliance Chris Philp said.

He told MPs at the Commons Home Affairs Committee that the number of crossings had increased “alarmingly” this year to more than 8,000 so far, compared with 1,844 in 2019 and 299 in 2018.

Asked to confirm that no agreement had been reached with France for its authorities to intercept migrant boats and turn them back to prevent them travelling to the UK, he said: “That is currently correct.

“The French operational posture on the water is that they don’t forcibly intercept migrant boats.

“They will rescue them if they start sinking and if the migrants request assistance but they do not currently forcibly intercept migrant boats while in French waters.

“That is something which we have been discussing and will no doubt continue to discuss it with the French, but as of today your assessment is correct.”

He said interceptions at sea “could be a critical component of completely stopping this route” but that it was also important to have action on land and return those who successfully make the trip, adding: “Turning people around at sea has a critical role to play as well.”

The UK Government believes there is “lawful basis for that kind of activity”, he said.

Previously, ministers have said their French counterparts believe this would break maritime law.

Mr Philp said the matter had been raised with the French government, adding that “on land” its authorities had “stepped up enormously in the last few months and interceptions on beaches”, most recently intercepting around 200 people in one day.

Dan O’Mahoney, the Home Office’s Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, told the committee they had been “negotiating very hard with the French”.

The number of crossings had “reduced” in the last two months, Mr Philp said, suggesting this could be down to a change in the weather as well as the fresh preventative measures being taken.

Particularly the number of migrants crossing on “red” days in November – when the weather is calm, making crossings easy to embark upon – had dropped by 65% compared with September, he added, branding this a “very significant step forward”.

Mr Philp also revealed only a “relatively small amount of money”, around £5 million in 2019, had been spent so far specifically on tackling small boat crossings ahead of a £28 million agreement announced at the weekend which would double the number of patrols on the French coastline among other measures.

In total, the UK has spent £192 million on illegal migration-related activities in France since September 2014, he said, adding that the majority of this has gone towards infrastructure for border controls and security in and around Calais.

At the meeting it also emerged that after the Brexit transition period ends, the UK may lose access to a European database of people who have already claimed asylum in other countries unless an agreement is put in place.

Asked if he would confirm the Home Office had ruled out sending asylum seekers to Ascension Island or using “giant wave machines” in the Channel to deter migrant crossings, Mr Philp said there were no current plans in place but did not rule out these options ever being considered in future.

Committee chairman Yvette Cooper said: “It would improve your credibility if you could just rule out some of the completely bonkers proposals.”

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