The Minister for Immigration (Caroline Nokes)
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. Thank you for that clarification about how long I may speak for.
It is a great credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) that he secured this important debate. As many Members will know, this issue first came to prominence over the festive period, but it started significantly before that. We are very conscious that since October there has been a sharp increase in the number of migrants attempting to cross the channel to the UK in small boats. During 2018, more than 500 migrants, most of them Iranian, attempted to travel to the UK on small vessels. Some 80% of them made their attempts in the last three months of the year. As a result, the Home Secretary announced a major incident and this issue has become an operational priority for the Home Office.
The decision to announce a major incident was taken not least to protect the lives of those attempting to make this dangerous crossing; my hon. Friend was absolutely right to point out how perilous it is. However, it was also taken because we have an absolute duty to protect the border and stop organised crime gangs exploiting vulnerable individuals who want to come here by sending them through the busiest shipping lane in the world. That is why we must stop this incredibly dangerous route becoming the new normal for those wanting to enter the UK illegally.
My hon. Friend pointed out the hazards to individual migrants and shipping, but there is also a very real hazard to brave volunteers from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, many of whom have been deployed from Dover to effect rescues in the channel, and to coastguard and Border Force officials, who have been on both our cutters and the coastal patrol vessels.
My hon. Friend was right to point out that this migration is driven very much by organised crime gangs. Just last month, five members of an organised crime group received a combined custodial sentence of 21 years and 10 months for smuggling migrants across the border, and last year alone, Immigration Enforcement’s criminal and financial investigation teams successfully disrupted 405 events of organised crime groups and their activity.
As well as those investigations, the Home Secretary has redeployed two Border Force cutters from overseas to the channel. While they are returning, other Border Force vessels have been supplemented by a Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel. There has been some criticism from people who ask why the cutters have not returned sooner. It is important to note that those vessels are designed and built to work around coastal areas rather than to make longer distance or open ocean deployments. For the crews to transit the bay of Biscay during winter—especially while deep Atlantic pressures are sweeping across, causing high swells, at times of up to 14 metres—is a dangerous pursuit, which must not be taken carelessly. I fully support the principle that the safety of our Border Force commanders, crews and vessels is paramount.
All essential maintenance activity has now been carried out on the cutters. Both are fully crewed and await a favourable weather window to return to the UK safely and securely. Currently, our forecast for their return is early February. Upon their return, we will have four cutters available to operate in the channel, but Members will appreciate that I will not discuss operational deployment in detail. As I said, until the cutters’ return, we are supplementing coverage with a Royal Navy vessel. In addition to the cutters, we have Border Force coastal patrol vessels in place. I visited Dover over the Christmas period to see the great work Border Force officers are doing there. As the Home Secretary said last week, we have also started to deploy aerial surveillance of the English channel. However, Members will appreciate that that is covert surveillance and I do not wish to discuss those actions in detail.
It is important to note that we have not taken those actions alone. We have worked very closely with the French authorities to tackle the issue. Around 40% of people who attempted the crossing last year were either disrupted by French law enforcement or returned to France via French agencies. Just last week, along with the French Interior Minister, Christophe Castaner, I visited the joint co-ordination and information centre in Calais to see at first hand the great co-operation between French and British authorities. In London last week, the Home Secretary and Mr Castaner signed a joint action plan to commit to reinforcing our border control. That builds on the 2018 Sandhurst treaty and demonstrates our determination to secure our shared border.
Through those efforts, we have reduced the number of individuals attempting the crossing from around 250 in December to 90 so far in January. However, we must not be complacent, and I am determined that we make further efforts to deter both the facilitators and the individuals who seek to make the crossing.
As Members will be aware, there is a widely accepted principle that those seeking asylum should claim it in the first safe country they reach, be that France or elsewhere. Therefore, if we establish that a migrant first entered another EU member state, we will always seek to return them to that state, in accordance with the Dublin regulation. For arrivals from safe non-EU states, asylum claims in the UK may be deemed inadmissible if the claimant has already been recognised as a refugee or given similar protection, if they have claimed asylum elsewhere, or if they have already spent five months in a safe country in which they could have claimed asylum.
We expect refugees to claim at the first reasonable opportunity. Indeed, that is a widely held international principle, and it certainly does not involve travelling through safe countries to reach the UK. Upholding that principle does not mean we will remove those who face persecution to their country. However, we will seek to return migrants to the first safe country in which they should have claimed asylum. Last week, a small number of migrants who entered the UK by small boat over Christmas were returned to France.
In the majority of cases, if a migrant is picked up in UK waters they are taken to the UK, and if they are picked up in French waters they are taken to France. The action plan we signed with France last week makes a commitment that migrants encountered in the channel will be taken to the nearest safe port, in accordance with international maritime law. Too often, migrants in the channel dictated to those who came to their rescue where they should be taken. That is not right, and I have asked officials to do all they can to prevent that “asylum shopping”, whether on land or at sea.
It is an established principle that those in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, and if we establish that a migrant first entered another EU member state, we will seek to return them there, in accordance with the Dublin regulation. We do not want people to think that if they leave a safe country such as France and get to Britain they will get to stay, which is why we are working out, with our French counterparts, ways to increase the number of returns we make.
As part of the joint action plan agreed last week, the UK and France made a renewed commitment to return migrants who attempt to cross the channel to the country they came from. That plan, which comes into force immediately and builds on the existing framework of co-operation in the Sandhurst treaty, states specifically:
“Migrants rescued at sea will be taken to a port of safety in accordance with international maritime law. The respective maritime authorities will liaise with each other about rescue operations to provide mutual assistance as necessary at sea, and to determine the appropriate port of safety for a rescued migrant.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering rightly raised the issue of funding. The UK has agreed to allocate more than £6 million to support France’s comprehensive regional action plan. As he pointed out, that has led to additional surveillance and security on French beaches and ports, as well as greater co-ordination between the French authorities on land and at sea. Just over half the investment will come from money already allocated under the Sandhurst treaty, which was signed back in January 2018, and an additional £3.2 million of new funding will be used for equipment and measures to tackle illegal migration via small boats.
The structures in place to co-ordinate operations in the channel include the joint maritime operations co-ordination centre and the national maritime information centre. They are both supported administratively by Border Force, but the Department for Transport is responsible for their governance. The Border Force maritime intelligence bureau and maritime co-ordination centre also maintain a close dialogue with the French authorities operating both at sea and in the air.
The UK’s obligations to those seeking asylum are clearly defined in UK law. Those obligations will continue to be met after Brexit, and the UK will continue to recognise refugees under the 1951 convention. If a deal is secured and finalised with the EU, we will continue to participate in all EU asylum directives we are part of, including the Dublin III regulation, throughout the implementation period, but my hon. Friend will be aware that we have not opted in to Dublin IV. The UK’s position on granting protection to those who need it will not change as a result of leaving the EU. As well as providing sanctuary to those who need it, we intend to continue to work together at every point in the migrant journey, to address push factors, to importantly tackle organised crime and to limit pull factors and abuse of claims.