Home Secretary Sajid Javid has questioned whether migrants using small boats to make risky journeys across the English Channel are genuine asylum seekers.
Speaking on a visit to Dover amid a “major incident” over the number of people attempting the journey to Britain he questioned why they had not sought asylum in the first safe country they entered.
He also suggested that those picked up by UK authorities faced having asylum requests denied as a deterrent to prevent others undertaking the same dangerous journey.
Last month Mr Javid announced that two more Border Force cutters will patrol the English Channel after scores of migrants risked the perilous crossing over the Christmas period.
The Home Secretary, who cut short a family holiday in South Africa to take personal control of the situation following criticism of the Government’s response, defended describing it as a “major incident”.
He told reporters on Wednesday that 539 people had crossed the Straits in 2018, with 80% making the journey in the last three months of the year.
He said “almost every case” saw those crossing go on to seek asylum in the UK, adding: “A question has to be asked: if you are a genuine asylum seeker why have you not sought asylum in the first safe country that you arrived in?
“Because France is not a country where anyone would argue it is not safe in anyway whatsoever, and if you are genuine then why not seek asylum in your first safe country?”
Following talks with high-level officials on Monday, Mr Javid redeployed two cutters from overseas to join HMC Vigilant, which is already patrolling off the South coast.
He also pledged:
- Better co-operation between French and UK law enforcement agencies;
- More work on disrupting attempts to cross the Channel “both directly, but also in more covert ways”;
- The Government doing “everything we can” to ensure migrants are returned to France where possible;
But the Home Secretary acknowledged that if Border Force vessels pick up migrants in British waters, they would be taken to a port in Britain.
On Wednesday he said the UK had to send a strong message to trafficking gangs that they “won’t succeed and we won’t allow people to succeed”.
He said that anyone who made it to the UK would see an asylum request processed “in the normal way”.
But pointing out that the journey across the world’s busiest shipping lane was highly perilous and being undertaken by children as young as nine, Mr Javid continued: “It’s incredibly dangerous, please do not do that, you are taking your life into your own hands.
“Also if you do somehow make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure that you are often not successful because we need to break that link, and to break that link means we can save more lives.”
There were 27,966 asylum applications in the UK from main applicants in the year ending September 2018.
This was 4% higher than in the previous 12 months, but lower than the levels seen in 2015 and 2016 during the European migration crisis.
Home Office statistics show 5,295 of the applications were received at ports, while 22,671 were received “in-country”.
The total number of asylum applications to EU countries in the year to September was estimated at 613,200, down 16% on the previous year.
The UK had the sixth highest number of applications within the EU.
Labour backbencher Stella Creasy, who has visited migrant camps in Calais, accused Mr Javid of normalising “anti-refugee rhetoric online”.
She added: “The asylum system in France is completely deadlocked and I fear deliberately so - they should be challenged on that.
“But none of that means Britain can absolve itself of responsibility to refugees.
“People will continue to die and be at mercy of traffickers all the time politicians pretend to play tough for votes rather than recognise why people flee.”
Paul Hook, head of campaigns at the charity Refugee Action, added: “The Home Secretary must remember that these are people who have fled their homes and they each deserve a decent, humanitarian, and understanding response.
“This situation demands our compassion and cool, calm heads and we hope the Home Secretary will reflect this in his statements on the subject.”