In comments described by opponents as “utterly reprehensible” and “cold blooded”, Mr Hammond said Europe could not absorb “millions” of Africans as the migrant crisis continues in Calais.
The minister said that in many cases migrants knew they only had to set foot in Europe for there to be little chance of them ever being forced to leave because of rules that allow citizens of the 28 member nations to come to live and work across the EU.
Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to renegotiate the UK’s membership of the European Union with stricter rules to prevent migration across the continent among his key demands ahead of an in/out referendum.
However, opponents attacked Mr Hammond comments as “inflammatory” and a “disgrace”.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “Many people will find the Foreign Secretary’s remarks particularly cold-blooded given the extent of human tragedy at the heart of the migrant crisis.”
Scottish Labour justice spokesman Hugh Henry added: “The use of inflammatory language to describe tragic humanitarian disasters is a disgrace.
“Some of these conflicts have developed from political decisions taken in the West and everyone has a responsibility to be mindful of the fact that there are humans dying every day.”
Mr Hammond’s comments came after Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras warned Greece was being overwhelmed by the influx of arrivals crossing the Mediterranean from the Middle East and Africa. Last month alone almost 50,000 migrants arrived in the EU through Greece compared with a total of 41,700 in the whole of last year, according to the latest figures from Frontex, the EU border agency.
The situation in Calais is part of a wider migration crisis in Europe caused largely by the displacement of people from war-ravaged nations such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea, and also North Africa.
Hammond said ensuring migrants could be returned to their country of origin was key to resolving the “crisis” at Calais,.
Warning that overall migration numbers to the EU could surge further, he said: “As long as the Europe Union’s laws are the way they are, many of them will only have to set foot in Europe to be pretty confident that they will never be returned to their country of origin.
“Now, that is not a sustainable situation because Europe can’t protect itself and preserve its standard of living and social structure, if it has to absorb millions of migrants from Africa.”
He made the remarks during a visit to Singapore yesterday.
He added: “Having reviewed the situation in the light of the crisis it is clear that there is more that can be done to enhance the physical security of the tunnel.
“But we also have to work with our French colleagues to try to deal with the root cause of the problem. So long as there are large numbers of pretty desperate migrants marauding around the area there will always be a threat to the tunnel’s security. We have got to be able to resolve this problem ultimately by being able to return those who are not entitled to claim asylum back to their countries of origin. That’s our number one priority,”
Hammond was accused of “playing politics with the lives of asylum seekers” and of attempting to blame the EU for the humanitarian crisis in Calais.
SNP MP Stuart C McDonald, the party’s immigration spokesman, said: “It is utterly reprehensible to see the Tories playing politics with the lives of asylum seekers and inferring blame on the EU for the increased numbers arriving in other states – the UK government must adopt a more co-operative position with our EU partner countries.”
Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie said: “Mr Hammond, like so many if his colleagues, seems only concerned with the physical security of the tunnel, not the human security of those whose lives are at stake.”
Scottish Labour leadership contender Kezia Dugdale said: “We’re talking about people not numbers. This is a humanitarian crisis and we need a government that has more to offer as a solution than higher fences and more dogs. Hammond would do well to remember that.”
Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn accused Hammond of “scaremongering”.
“We need responsibility and leadership from this government, not scaremongering,” he said. “Those fleeing Syria are desperate refugees from a country being torn apart by war. Hammond should think more carefully about what he says.”