Britain’s struggling immigration strategy has been exposed with only five of 24,000 small-boat refugees returned to Europe, a government minister has said.
Despite spending millions on preventive measures including £54 million ($72.7m) to enlist the help of French border police, the UK’s post-Brexit migrant policy is under severe pressure, members of Parliament were told in Wednesday.
A record number of asylum seekers are crossing the English Channel from France, some willing to pay €4,000 ($4,526) to people smugglers to make the hazardous boat trip.
Despite Britain introducing drones, reconnaissance aircraft, more patrol boats and paying for 200 French police officers to help prevent the crossings, the policy appears to have failed, the Home Affairs committee heard.
Having admitted that there had been a record increase in small boat crossings with 24,000 this year, Tom Pursglove, the Immigration Minister, was asked from those numbers how many had been returned to any European Union country since January.
“The answer in this year is five,” he replied, looking embarrassed. He had earlier stated that in 2020, before the Brexit deal, it was 294.
“Do you have any agreement in place with the EU for those returns?” asked chairwoman Yvette Cooper, a Labour MP.
“There is not a returns agreement with the European Union in place at the moment,” admitted Mr Pursglove.
Ms Cooper referred to the previous Dublin Arrangement that helped return hundreds of migrants to the EU before Brexit. The minister described Dublin merely as "a panacea”.
“Indeed, but it was returning several hundreds of people and now it's just five,” Ms Cooper interrupted.
With a bilateral agreement with France unlikely, particularly given its increasingly acrimonious relationship with the UK, any migrant returns deal will likely be an EU-wide arrangement.
That will inevitably become entangled in the current renegotiation of the Brexit trade deal with Britain threatening to trigger Article 16 over the Northern Ireland protocol.
However, Mr Pursglove argued that returns, as well as quickly processing asylum claims, would be speeded up once Parliament passed the Nationality and Borders Bill.
But the current figures make difficult reading for Home Secretary Priti Patel, who has vowed to clamp down on uncontrolled immigration, which was one of the main reasons many people voted for Brexit.
Her position appeared further undermined on Monday after a contradictory joint statement with her French counterpart Gerald Darmanin. He suggested that the only way to “prevent 100 per cent of crossings” was to reduce “the attractiveness of the UK for migrants”.
The committee also heard that smugglers were “becoming more audacious” and expanding their launching sites from 50km to 200km of European coastline.
Currently, refugees fleeing the regime in Iran make up the highest proportion of nationalities crossing by small boat at 29 per cent, followed by Iraqis (18 per cent) and Syrians (9 per cent). However, Mr Pursglove did admit that Afghans escaping Taliban control were soon likely to make the hazardous 22-mile crossing in winter.
“It is a fact that we are seeing an Afghan cohort reflected in our small boat arrivals,” he said.
Ms Cooper suggested that more Afghans were making the crossing because Britain has stopped accepting the majority of their visa applications, giving them “no safe legal route to rejoin family once they have fled persecution in Afghanistan”.
Dan O’Mahoney, the Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, told the committee that 19,000 crossings had been prevented by the French authorities this year and his task force had arrested 400 smuggling “facilitators”.
But he admitted that it remained a highly lucrative business for criminal gangs, giving the example of a large boat with 88 people on board, which would have netted €352,000 for the organisers.
The committee also heard that the use of giant wave machines to sink small boats had been comprehensively ruled out.
However, Mr Pursglove conceded that the government “reserves the right to proceed with an offshore processing arrangement” using a third country to process asylum seekers under new legislation. In the last year Denmark, the island of St Helena, Rwanda and Albania have been speculatively linked to this role.