A joint UK-French patrol at sea would be more effective in tackling the migrant crisis than putting “more boots on the ground” in Calais, a former Border Force boss has suggested.
Tony Smith believes such a plan would prevent people from drowning but would need the right “political agreement” from both countries.
His comments come after Home Secretary Priti Patel told MPs offers of joint patrols had been made “once again” to her French counterpart, adding: “I’ve offered to work with France to put officers on the ground and do absolutely whatever is necessary to secure the area so that vulnerable people do not risk their lives by getting into unseaworthy boats.”
Speaking in the Commons on Thursday, she said: “We have to find joint solutions and if it means actually doing more with France and persuading them to take on more support, we will absolutely strain every sinew to do so.”
Mr Smith, a former Border Force director general, told the PA news agency that joint patrols and a returns agreement to send people back to France would “break the business model in a stroke because there would be no point in paying a smuggler 5,000 euros to get into a small boat.
“I’m not sure us sending more boots on the ground to augment the CRS (the police in Calais) is really going to fix the problem.”
“It’s much bigger than that,” he said, adding that France would “have to be responsible” for what happens while patrolling a “vast area of French territory”.
MP for Calais Pierre-Henri Dumont told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the idea would not work because it would take “thousands of people” to monitor hundreds of kilometres of French coastline, adding: “There is also a question of sovereignty – I’m not sure the British people would accept it the other way round, with the French army patrolling the British shore.”
Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd told ITV’s Peston: “If you had French police working in Hastings, I can’t see that really being acceptable to either side.”
Mr Smith said there needed to be a “cross-channel governance structure… working under one single command with a simple mission – to save lives, to stop people drowning, and to put the smugglers out of business”.
He said there was precedent for joint operations under a principle called an integrated border enforcement team, which can operate across country borders.
It has been used to police areas which straddle the US and Canada, he said.
Joint maritime patrols are “permissible under international law” and there is “no reason why we could not have a joint patrol along the English Channel on both sides”.
It would “at least prevent drownings, like the dreadful drowning we saw yesterday, because you would have sufficient capability, whether that was in French or British waters, to stop that happening”, he added.
The “sticking point” would be the political questions this may raise over wider immigration and asylum policies, he said, as it would involve returning people to France, where they entered the water.
Mr Smith said: “I think it’s incumbent upon them to engage on this because the alternative, well we’ve seen what the alternative is, people are going to drown.”
Using joint patrols poses a range of questions, such as: who would be in charge; who tasks the patrols and decides what they are going to do; how they behave; what their powers and authorities are; where would their jurisdiction start and end; and what resources would be used?
Border Force is already “pretty stretched” and has “significant resources” already on the Kent coastline processing the numbers of people arriving. He said other bodies would need to be considered like the police, the National Crime Agency and “maybe even the military, if that was palatable”.
As well as an agreed strategy, legislation may even be needed to make it possible but Mr Smith said: “Operationally, it’s perfectly feasible …”
He also said more use could be made of drones.