Home Secretary Sajid Javid is under pressure to “get a grip” on the issue of migrants attempting to cross the English Channel amid criticism over the Government’s response.
Mr Javid has cut short his Christmas break and is returning to Westminster to deal with what he described as a “major incident” unfolding in waters off the south coast of England.
Six Iranian men were found on a Kent beach early on Sunday, in the latest successful crossing of the Channel from France by migrants in inflatable boats. The group were handed over to immigration authorities after arriving in Kingsdown, near Deal.
The Home Secretary has promised to do more to tackle the issue, saying it is of “grave concern” that people are attempting the perilous crossing.
However, in the face of calls for more Border Force Cutters to be deployed in the Channel, he said it was “vital we strike a balance between protecting them and protecting our borders” – and avoid encouraging more people to take the risk.
He spoke by phone on Sunday with French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, who 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”.
Mr Javid thanked the French minister for his “partnership”, adding: “UK and France will build on our joint efforts to deter illegal migration – protecting our borders and human life.”
Mr Javid has come under criticism from Labour and some Tory MPs for his handling of the issue, with shadow home secretary Diane Abbott accusing him of being “slow to respond” and branding his strategy “flawed”.
Writing in the Sunday Mirror, Ms Abbott said: “He has still to explain exactly how the Government plans to handle these mass criminal operations in British waters.
“The Home Office’s flawed strategy has been to focus on deterring refugees, thinking that the issues in the Mediterranean would never reach our shores.
“While the Tories wax lyrical about control of our borders and being tough on security, they cannot seem to get a grip on criminal smugglers operating on a few hundred miles of coastline, in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.”
Mr Javid also came under fire from Rehman Chishti, the Tory MP for Gillingham and Rainham who sits on the Home Affairs Select Committee.
He told the Sunday Telegraph there has been “a lack of leadership to get a grip on this issue”.
Mr Chishti added: “They have not got a grip on it. What we have got is unsatisfactory and somebody has to do something. Ultimately the buck stops with the Home Secretary.”
Mr Javid appeared before the Home Affairs Committee in November when he was asked about the measures being taken to stem the number of migrants attempting the crossing.
He said he was considering whether to bring Border Force Cutters on operations in the Mediterranean back to the Channel, although he was yet to make a decision.
On Saturday Mr Javid said he was keeping the number of Border Force vessels in the Channel “under close review”, but admitted there was “no one easy answer”.
Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Tory MP for Dover and Deal Charlie Elphicke called for all five of the Border Force’s Cutters to be deployed in the Channel as a “powerful deterrent”.
Rejecting Mr Javid’s suggestion that increasing patrols would encourage more people to attempt the crossing, Mr Elphicke said: “You don’t deter burglars by leaving your front door open.”
“This cannot be done on the cheap with the half-hearted Dad’s Army-type set-up suggested by the Home Office in the past,” he said.
Mr Javid declared the situation a “major incident” on Friday, appointing a “gold commander” to oversee the situation and give daily updates.
He said on Saturday: “The situation in the Channel is of grave concern, with people gambling their lives in reckless attempts to reach the UK in unsafe boats and treacherous conditions.
“It is vital we strike a balance between protecting them and protecting our borders, ensuring we do not encourage more people to make this dangerous journey.”
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said the armed forces were ready to offer help if needed, but there had not been any requests from the Home Office.
The head of the National Crime Agency-led Project Invigor organised immigration crime task force Chris Hogben warned more crossings were “likely” in the coming weeks.
Mr Hogben said “significant resources” were being devoted to helping French authorities disrupt trafficking activities and dozens of crossing have been prevented, while “three suspected facilitators” had been arrested and charged.
A spokeswoman for the Immigration Services Union (ISU), which represents Border Force staff, said the two ageing Cutters available for patrols were “woefully inadequate”.
Lucy Moreton also said it was “very difficult to know” how much the French authorities were doing to prevent people-smuggling from the camps housing migrants around Calais.
“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.”
A spokeswoman for the French Maritime Prefecture, Ingrid Parrot, said authorities were dealing with a “network” of organised people smugglers.
Detention Action said the reason for the crisis was the Government’s failure to create safe and legal routes for people to claim asylum in Britain.
The charity said: “How can we claim to uphold our proudest tradition of offering sanctuary to those fleeing persecution if we require people to make death-defying journeys to claim that right and then imprison them indefinitely in detention centres when they arrive?
“Instead of laying the blame solely at the hands of criminal gangs, Sajid Javid must step up and provide safe passage for those in distress if he wants to avoid further human tragedy.”