The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
My Lords, I will first address the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, which I thought were very positive. The basis of our skills-based immigration system is that, if people have the skills to come here, we will welcome them. Immigration has contributed to our economy. We are a nation of immigrants. He is and I am. I presume that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, counts herself an immigrant. I am not quite sure about the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, who is from Northern Ireland, but the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, does as well. A good proportion of the people speaking in this debate are immigrants, as are half the Cabinet.
Secondly, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, for securing this important debate on the issue of migrants arriving in the UK on small boats, which is a different point from that which the noble Lord, Lord Desai, makes. We will go on shortly to further discuss the dreadful boat tragedy that we learned of yesterday.
These crossings are dangerous—people have lost their lives attempting them—and they are wholly unnecessary. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, my noble friend Lord Lilley and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, said, France is a safe country with a fully functioning asylum system, as are the other countries of Europe through which these people typically pass on their way to the UK. There is no need for those in need of refuge to make these hazardous journeys across the channel, because a safe route to asylum exists in Europe. The motive of those endangering themselves in this way therefore cannot exclusively be one of seeking sanctuary from persecution. These crossings are driven by organised criminals, who sell the dream of a better life in the UK at the expense of the safety of the people they bring here, and who do not care whether the men, women and children they cram into fragile and unseaworthy craft live or die, so long as they get their money. The Government are determined to stop these crossings and to bring to justice the evil criminal gangs who profit from them.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, said, nearly 70% of arrivals are men and the majority of the children are also male. Iranian nationals account for the most arrivals over the past two years, followed by those from Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Eritrea. Noble Lords will note that we have had a Syrian resettlement scheme over the last few years.
The point made by my noble friend Lord Lilley that the middle classes are the only ones who can afford to come is important, in terms of vulnerability and neediness, because the people who can afford to pay people smugglers are the ones most likely to get here. You do not see many older ladies or female children. That the majority are male and between the ages of 18 and 34, although they might be skinny when they get here, is surely an indicator of vulnerability.
In recent decades, the institution of refuge has been abused by those who want to come to the UK for other reasons and who view asylum as a means to gain entry which would otherwise be denied to them. The phenomenon of using small boats to cross the channel, which we have seen grow since 2018, is merely the latest and most outward manifestation of a problem that the Home Office has had to deal with for many years: large numbers of people, mostly without documents—as the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, said—travelling from the safe countries of Europe and seeking asylum in the UK.
To suggest that all these people have no haven in European countries and that they are driven into these perilous crossings by desperation is just not true. Those making those arguments, I would suggest, are being disingenuous. As the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, said, these crossings are made for the same reason as applies to those hiding in lorries and containers or using fraudulent travel documents on passenger services: to evade our immigration system.
The noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Dubs, asserted that we had closed the door and that this was why this situation has happened. I was just thinking of the various routes that we have or have been replaced. In terms of Dubs, we met our commitment of 480 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, might shake her head, but these are facts. We have issued 39,000 family reunion visas since 2015. We have had the Syrian resettlement scheme, which resettled more than 20,000 people in the last few years. That has been replaced by the global resettlement scheme, so to respond to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, we will now resettle vulnerable people from all over the world. Our assessment will be based on vulnerability and not on from where they come, though the two may of course be linked. We now have the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which is an extremely generous scheme. There is the BNO scheme, which the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, talked about, and, of course, we have the ARAP scheme for those who helped us in Afghanistan. To say that we have closed the door is just not true.
We are clear that access to our asylum system should be based on need and not the ability to pay people smugglers. That is why we have introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill. I am pleased to hear that the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and my noble friend Lord Lilley are looking forward to it; I look forward to working with them. It is the most comprehensive reform in decades to fix the broken asylum and illegal migration system. This country has a long tradition of welcoming those in need of sanctuary, but not everyone who wants to settle here can do so and those who do so must come here legally.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, said, based on her experience of visiting Dover, the brave and highly trained officers of Border Force, day in and day out, set out to sea in cutters and coastal patrol vessels to manage the small boats used by migrants to cross the channel. Their mission has been one of search and rescue rather than enforcement, because we have a legal duty to preserve safety of life at sea. That is why HM Coastguard and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution are involved in responding to these crossings: a life in danger at sea is a life that we will try to save if at all possible. Border Force has also developed safe and legal maritime tactics to turn around migrant vessels and prevent crossings. This maritime deterrent will form part of a wider set of tools designed to dissuade people from using this route, preventing embarkations and ultimately saving lives.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked me about legality. I say to her that this is nothing new. Border Force has existing powers under the 1971 Act to intercept vessels in UK territorial seas, and an officer is not liable in any criminal or civil proceedings if the court is satisfied that the act was done in good faith and there were reasonable grounds for doing it. All operational procedures used at sea are delivered in accordance with domestic and international law and obligations.
We are clear that these crossings will be truly ended only when they are seen to be ineffective by those who would make them. That is why we are pushing for the unconditional return of all those arriving by small boats to their country of embarkation as soon as possible. That is the reason for the inadmissibility rules that have now come into force: they make it easier for us to return those who have arrived by small boats. We are now focused on agreement with France and other members of the EU to accept back those who have arrived in the UK by small boats, without condition.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, asked me about the money we had given to France and what was happening to it. A bilateral arrangement was reached between the UK and France on 20 July this year. The UK pledged to make a further financial investment of £54 million to tackle illegal migration and small boats. We can confirm that the processes for French funding arrangements agreed in July to tackle illegal migration are in place. Initial payments have been made for the deployment of police and for accommodation centre places, with further payments for technology agreed for later this year. She will understand that I cannot go into any further detail than that.
In the meantime, those who arrive, claim asylum in the UK and are destitute have to be accommodated and supported while their cases are considered. That is a legal requirement but also a moral and practical one. We have a particular responsibility for the care and welfare of vulnerable unaccompanied children, and from this week local authorities have been notified that the national transfer scheme has been temporarily mandated to ensure that unaccompanied asylum- seeking children receive the critical care, support and accommodation that they need upon their arrival.
I will go into further detail on that for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and others. In 2020—this goes to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr; he and I are always disagreeing on this—the UK received the second highest number of asylum applications from unaccompanied children, 2,773, out of all the EU-plus countries. They accounted for approximately 16% of all reported UASC claims made.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, asked about family reunion. We provide safe and legal routes to bring families together through our family reunion policy, which allows a partner and children under 18 of those granted protection in the UK to join them here if they formed part of the family unit before the sponsor fled their country. As I said earlier, more than 39,000 family reunion visas have been granted since 2015.
I have talked about the support that the UK has funded. The funding arrangement that was agreed by the Home Secretary increases the number of French law enforcement officers patrolling the beaches, improves the surveillance technology and allows more crossing attempts to be detected sooner. It strengthens security infrastructure, making it more difficult for crossings to be attempted, and supports migrants into the French asylum system, giving them a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous and unnecessary crossings.
A noble Lord asked me about French interceptions. In 2020, the figure was 6,079, and this year it has been nearly 21,000. That is a lot of interceptions. We need to recognise the difficulties that the French face here. They are active in their efforts to prevent these crossings, but they are increasingly being met by violence from people smugglers and migrants, emphasising that not all those who are making these crossings are vulnerable victims. As French preventive efforts bite, we have seen the people smugglers operate from ever-greater stretches of coastline, using bigger boats, carrying more migrants and taking greater risks. The French activity is undoubtedly having an effect, but this is a lucrative criminal industry and the opponents are resourceful, industrious and determined. That is why we are redoubling our efforts to provide support.
An asylum system should provide a safe haven to those fleeing persecution, oppression or tyranny. We want to be fair to those who are genuinely in need of international protection and firm against those who are not. I have talked about our proud record, but, as the title of this debate suggests, we now need to stop the dangerous, illegal and unnecessary small boat crossings of the channel, control our borders and return those with no right to be in our country.
In terms of financial support for councils which take migrants, local councils and health partners who resettle families will receive up to £4,500 per child for education, £850 to cover English language provision for adults requiring this support, and £2,600 to cover healthcare.
Sorry, this is slightly out of sync, but 273 asylum-related returns were concluded in the year ending June 2021, which, considering Covid, shows that we are making returns. The measures in the Nationality and Borders Bill will assist with this.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, asked about preventing terrorists using this route to get to the UK. In fact, a noble Lord in this House suggested that we should allow the blanket no-checks arrival of people from Afghanistan, and I made it very clear then that that was not a good idea. Security is the number one reason for border control. All our processes and procedures are predicated on the need to safeguard the UK from those who pose a security threat, and that is why we need to ensure that everyone seeking to enter the UK by any means is checked thoroughly against security databases upon arrival. People arriving by small boats are subject to stringent checks immediately upon arrival in the UK, and again as they are processed into the asylum system.
The Government’s commitment to reforming our immigration and asylum system is being delivered, as I said, through our new plan for immigration and its centrepiece, the Nationality and Borders Bill. The plan has three objectives: increasing the fairness and efficiency of our system so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum; deterring illegal entry into the UK; and removing more easily from the UK those with no right to be here. Despite other disagreements in this House, I do not think that there is disagreement on that point: that people who should not be here should be returned. Our long-term plan will prioritise bringing over the most vulnerable, deterring illegal migration and creating an effective sanction where there are no relevant mitigating circumstances. We will remove those with no right to be here.
Finally, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, once more for securing this debate.