UK

Channel migrants: UK and France to step up patrols

A Border Force RIB on patrol in Dover Harbour Image copyright PA

The UK and France are to step up joint patrols and increase surveillance to tackle a rise in the number of migrants trying to reach Britain in small boats.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who has cut short a family holiday, agreed a joint action plan with the French interior minister during a phone call.

Six more Iranian men were found on a beach near Dover on Sunday morning.

The National Crime Agency said French authorities prevented a further attempt to cross the Channel on Saturday night.

Mr Javid has come under growing pressure to act, with Labour accusing the Home Office of a "flawed" strategy and one Conservative MP urging Mr Javid to "get a grip".

Following a call with his French counterpart, Christophe Castaner, the Home Office said the pair agreed an "enhanced action plan" to be put in place in the coming week.

It includes disrupting organised trafficking gangs and raising awareness among migrants of the dangers of a Channel crossing.

The Home Office did not give details of how this would be done.

Currently, only one of the Border Force's fleet of five cutters - specialist boats which the force describes as being capable of rescuing several migrant boats at the same time - is currently operational in the Dover Strait.

The Home Office did not say whether the other four cutters would now be called back from search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean to patrol waters off England's south coast.

Since November, more than 220 people have attempted to cross the Channel in small boats.

They include six men, all Iranian nationals, who were found on a beach at Kingsdown, near Deal, in Kent, on Sunday morning. They have been transferred to immigration officials.

Compared to the number of refugees seeking asylum in the UK every year, the number who have attempted to cross the channel by dinghy is tiny, says BBC political correspondent Ben Wright.

In 2017, 26,350 people applied for asylum, an average of about 2,200 a month.

Image copyright Lewis Morris
Image caption Six men were found on Kingsdown beach on Sunday
Image copyright Lewis Morris
Image caption The group was found alongside a rigid-hulled inflatable boat

Mr Javid was expected to be back in the UK in time to chair a meeting on Monday with senior government officials, the Border Force and the National Crime Agency.

On Twitter, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner confirmed he had spoken by phone to Mr Javid, and that they were working together "to combat Channel crossings".

In a tweet, Mr Javid thanked him for the "partnership", saying the UK and France would "build on our joint efforts to deter illegal immigration - protecting our borders and human life".

The two are expected to meet face-to-face in January to assess whether further action is required.

Pre-Brexit 'rush'

Many of the migrants are thought to be Iranian or Syrian. A BBC South East investigation last month found that people smugglers were telling migrants they must enter before "the borders shut properly" after Brexit.

One man from Afghanistan told the BBC that there was "a rush" and "everyone is talking about it, saying we need to get in quick in case the security gets tighter".

One refugee group said they believed most of those trying to cross were Kurdish people from Iran.

Bridget Chapman, of Kent Refugee Action Network, said they could have genuine asylum claims and should not have to "risk their lives".

She said the government needed to find a way to process their claims in France instead - and then transfer them.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionA migrant rescue off the coast of Dover in November 2018

She said it was "a miracle" that there had been no fatalities, as although the weather had been settled, the boats used to transport migrants were "entirely unsuitable" and the water was extremely cold.

"I've seen pictures of people with no lifejackets on - it's terrifying," she said. "I hope the government can find the political will to make sure we don't have people drowning off the coast of the UK."

Ms Chapman thought more people were using boats as security had been tightened around Calais, making it more difficult for people to use lorries on ferries or trains.

The mild weather may also have encouraged more to try the sea route, she said.

Chris Hogben, from the National Crime Agency, said it was new to see this level of Iranian migration and these groups would be paying serious organised criminals "quite a bit of money" to get across.

He said his officers were also seeing more migrants organise the crossing themselves, either by buying or stealing a boat, and he expected to see more attempts using that method in the coming weeks.

Image copyright PA

Some MPs have called for more vessels to be deployed in the Channel, but Mr Javid said it was "vital we strike a balance between protecting [migrants] and protecting our borders".

The home secretary said he wanted to avoid encouraging more people to take the risk of attempting the crossing and was keeping the number of cutters "under close review".

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said the armed forces were ready to offer help if needed.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said in a tweet: "We have a duty to reach out the hand of humanity, support and friendship to people who are in danger and seeking a place of safety."

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, writing in the Sunday Mirror, said the Home Office's strategy was "flawed", with the "focus on deterring refugees, thinking that the issues in the Mediterranean would never reach our shores".

'Joint security zone'

Charlie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover, said he wanted to work with France to find the safe houses where people were being trafficked to, as well as identify where the traffickers are getting their boats from and stop them setting off for England.

"If we don't act and stop it now, sooner or later there's a great risk of a tragedy in the middle of the English Channel," he said.

More on this story