UK and France pledge drive to tackle people-smuggling in Channel
Six Iranian men were found on a beach in Kent on Sunday morning with a small boat
British home secretary Sajid Javid cut short his Christmas break to deal with an influx of migrants. File photograph: PA Wire
The British home secretary and his French counterpart have pledged to step up joint efforts to tackle cross-Channel people smuggling, as Labour accuse the Tories of whipping up concern about the issue.
Six Iranian men were found on a beach near Deal in Kent on Sunday morning with a small boat, the British home office confirmed, bringing the number who have made the perilous crossing since Christmas Day close to 100.
An official said the men were handed over to be processed by immigration officers after receiving a medical assessment.
British home secretary Sajid Javid, flew back early from a family holiday in South Africa to take control of the situation, which the government declared a major incident on Friday, although sources said there was no clear evidence of a sudden sharp increase in the number of arrivals via the Channel.
Mr Javid and the French interior minister, Christophe Castaner, are expected to launch a joint action plan later this week. It will include more patrols in the area, enhanced intelligence-sharing aimed at breaking up the gangs involved and an information campaign to raise awareness about the risks of the crossing.
The pair had what the officials said was a significant and productive phone call on Sunday, after which Mr Castaner said they had agreed to “strengthen our actions to combat Channel crossings undertaken by certain irregular migrants on small boats, at peril of their lives”.
He told Mr Javid that French authorities had dismantled a people-smuggling gang operating in the area on December 19th.
Mr Javid will chair a meeting on Monday that will bring together senior officials from the Border Force, the national crime agency and other authorities.
The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, said it was right to increase cooperation with the French authorities, because vulnerable migrants were at risk in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
But she also accused the government of exploiting the issue.
“There’s no question that with Brexit, and also with the approach of the meaningful vote in January, people are being whipped up about migration issues, because the government thinks this is the best way of frightening people to vote for their deal.
“It’s the Farage technique, hordes of people trying to enter the country. You frighten people about that.”
Ms Abbott said Brexit, and particularly a no-deal Brexit, would make it harder to cooperate on tackling the underlying issues.
“We need to work much more closely with the authorities on the ground in northern France.
“But of course Brexit makes that harder, not easier. We’re going towards Brexit without a security treaty, and the possibility of working with the local people on the ground about this are fast diminishing.”
The official Vote Leave campaign used the risk of a sharp increase in legal migration, including from Turkey if it ever joined the EU, as an argument during the 2016 referendum. Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU also pointed to the unrelated increase in refugees and asylum seekers as a reason to quit the bloc.
British defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, offered to deploy the navy to deal with the small boats trying to cross the Channel at the weekend, telling the Sunday Telegraph: “We have not had any requests as yet, but if the home office is in need of armed forces support then our navy, air force and army stand ready to assist.”
A government source said: “I wonder if he realises that if they strayed into French waters it would be an act of war?”
Ms Abbott said: “I think Gavin Williamson is just nakedly trailing his coat for the leadership, and I think that’s a little bit unpleasant, given that these are real human lives at stake.”
A spokeswoman for the Immigration Services Union (ISU), which represents Border Force staff, said the boats currently available for patrols in the channel were “woefully inadequate”. Lucy Moreton also said it was very difficult to know how much the French authorities were doing to prevent people smuggling.
“We are being told that those touting for these crossings are absolutely open about it,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “They are around and about in the camps, they are in the cafes in those areas of Calais.”
The immigration minister Caroline Nokes has argued that deploying more vessels to the area could exert a pull factor over potential migrants. “They might act as a magnet, encouraging people to make a perilous crossing,.”
Ms Abbott dismissed that argument.
“Any type of immigration policy that you enforce by leaving people to die is the wrong immigration policy. We had the same arguments about people crossing the Med. If you save them, it’s a pull factor. Actually, the push factor is how desperate these people are. If you even begin to justify allowing people to drown in the sea by talking about pull factors, it’s quite immoral,” she said. – Guardian