Home Secretary Sajid Javid has been criticised after questioning whether hundreds of migrants using small boats to make risky journeys across the English Channel are genuine asylum seekers.
Speaking on a visit to Dover after declaring a “major incident” and redeploying two Border Force vessels from the Mediterranean, Mr Javid questioned why those making the crossing, most of whom have come from Iran, had not sought asylum in other countries closer to home.
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?
“France is not a country where anyone would argue it is not safe in any way whatsoever, and if you are genuine then why not seek asylum in your first safe country?”
Mr Javid also suggested those picked up by UK authorities faced having asylum requests denied as a deterrent to prevent others undertaking the same dangerous journey.
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Ed Davey claimed the comments showed the Government’s “hostile environment” policy towards immigrants and asylum seekers “is alive and well”.
“Many of these people have fled war in Syria or persecution in Iran,” Mr Davey said.
“For the Home Secretary to suggest – on the basis of no evidence whatsoever – that they are not ‘genuine’ asylum seekers is completely unacceptable. For the Government to summarily deny their claims would be unlawful and inhumane.”
Last month Mr Javid announced that two more Border Force cutters will patrol the English Channel after several dozen migrants risked the perilous crossing over the Christmas period.
The Home Secretary, who cut short a family holiday in South Africa following criticism of the Government’s response, said yesterday that 539 people had crossed in 2018, with 80 per cent making the journey in the last three months of the year.
Mr Javid 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 acknowledged that if Border Force vessels pick up migrants in British waters, they would be taken to a port in Britain, and asylum requests would be processed “in the normal way”.
But he added: “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 per cent higher than in the previous 12 months, but lower than the levels seen in 2015 and 2016 when large numbers of people arrived in Europe over land and by sea. The UK had the sixth highest number of applications within the EU in the year to September.
Labour backbencher Stella Creasy, who has visited migrant camps in Calais, accused Mr Javid of normalising “anti-refugee rhetoric”.
She said: “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 the mercy of traffickers, all the time politicians pretend to play tough for votes rather than recognise why people flee.”
Dr Lisa Doyle, director of advocacy at the Refugee Council, said Mr Javid’s comments were “deeply concerning”.
She said: “The outcome of an asylum application cannot be pre-judged before it has been made and must be processed on its individual merit, irrespective of how that person reached the country.
“We are hearing time and again that the conditions in France do not make people feel safe, with migrant camps being razed … the UK has an obligation to assess claims fairly and grant protection to those who need it.”