Posted on May 22, 2020

Ex-Border Force Chief Says Migrants Crossing English Channel Are ‘Major Threat’ to UK Borders

Katie Weston and William Cole, Daily Mail, May 22, 2020

The ex-Border Force chief has today said migrants crossing the English Channel are a ‘major threat’ to UK borders as another boat is picked up today, taking the total number to a record-breaking 601 so far this month.

Tony Smith CBE, a former head of the Border Force, told the Commons home affairs committee that he cannot see an immediate end to the crisis.

He also commented on widely shared footage that some have claimed shows a French Navy ship escorting a migrant dinghy into British waters this week.

It comes as Border Force patrols picked up another boat carrying 13 migrants today, taking the total who have reached British shores to 601 so far this month, with 57 migrants arriving on five boats yesterday and 64 on Wednesday.

The small boat was picked up off the Kent coast at around 2.14am, with the Coastguard fixed-wing aircraft scrambled along with the Dungeness lifeboat and Border Force vessel Hunter.

French authorities also stopped another boat from travelling across the Channel.

At least 1,121 migrants have now crossed to the UK on small boats since the coronavirus lockdown was announced, according to data.

Mr Smith said: ‘This was declared a critical incident by the Home Secretary last year.

‘In my experience critical incidents are declared in order to put out the fire if you like with a task force and that when the fire’s put out we return to business as normal.

‘It’s too enduring to be just a critical incident. I think this is becoming a major threat, I’m afraid, to the UK border.’

He said the crossings entail a ‘huge risk to life and limb, which should be our top priority in any case’.

The committee heard that migrants are told by smugglers that if they get picked up by Border Force then they will get into the UK.

Mr Smith said the Government needs to have a ‘very serious look’ at its capabilities.

He said: ‘We haven’t really geared ourselves up to a major maritime threat like this either in terms of our infrastructure, our powers, our response capability or our international response capability with France.

‘This is all driven by money and smugglers. You need to send a very, very clear message that that’s not going to work.’

Mr Smith was also asked by Ruth Edwards MP about footage that has been widely shared on social media this week.

The Rushcliffe MP said: ‘It appears to show a French naval vessel accompanying a migrant dinghy with migrants in it from French waters into British waters, which I think surprised a lot of people because they thought they would be accompanying them back to France.

‘Could you just clarify for us what is actually going on in those images and what the legal position is?’

Mr Smith replied that interdiction on the high seas is an ‘extraordinarily difficult area’.

He added: ‘The international law is that health and safety must come first and any vessel that sees another vessel that’s in that state with women and children on board, with no navigation equipment, at risk of drowning should immediately take measures to take them on board.

‘As I understand it though, the migrants are resisting any indication that they would be prepared to be rescued from a small dinghy by a French vessel.

‘They want to be rescued by a British vessel and so we need to be agile, we need to see what is going on and we need to be quickly ready and able to adapt and that’s my main concern.’

He said the message that is getting out is that migrants who are picked up by Border Force are ‘essentially guaranteed’ passage to a British port and it is unlikely they will ever be returned anywhere.

Meanwhile, a British fisherman has claimed French patrols are ‘escorting’ migrants across the Channel to the UK as Border Force officials pick up another boat today, taking the total to more than a record 588 this month.

Skipper Matt Coker accused the authorities of making little effort to stop the crossings into the UK, saying more migrants are being spotted when the weather is ‘calm’.

It comes as Tory MP Andrew Rosindell announces he has written to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to ‘express dismay’ at the ‘levels of illegal crossings’ taking place in the Channel.

French police stopped around 100 migrants attempting to cross to the UK yesterday, with over 1,100 being arrested in the country in the first quarter of this year, adding to a total of 157 being picked up from the Channel.

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Coker told Sky News: ‘Unfortunately what you’ve seen today is very typical right now.

‘It’s happening more and more on days like this, when the weather is calm.’

Meanwhile Mr Rosindell, the MP for Romford, tweeted today: ‘I have written to Priti Patel to express my dismay and that of my constituents at the levels of illegal crossings taking place in the English Chanel.

‘If anyone can get a grip on this crisis it’s our Home Secretary, but we need more robust action to protect our shores immediately!’

Minister for Immigration Compliance and the Courts Chris Philip said: ‘French police stopped around 100 migrants from putting their lives at risk by attempting to cross to the UK using a small boat.

‘This demonstrates the continued and intensified cooperation between the UK and France as well as the significant efforts of French colleagues.

‘We are stepping up action to stop these unacceptable crossings, going after the criminals perpetrating these heinous crimes and prosecuting them for their criminal activity.’

The migrants intercepted while coming to the UK yesterday will be transferred to immigration officials and interviewed. They will be ‘dealt with in line with immigration rules’ and ‘transferred to detention where appropriate’, according to the Home Office.

Migrants are not ‘specifically tested’ for coronavirus but are ‘continuously monitored’ for symptoms, with PPE made available to Border Force and all operational staff.

It follows Nigel Farage accusing France of assisting an ‘invasion’ of migrants across the Channel after its border patrol ships were filmed shadowing dinghies trying to make it to the UK.

The Brexit Party leader, 56, said yesterday would be ‘another record day’ for crossings and claimed nine migrant boats were already on the Channel.

Border patrols say they are powerless to stop the boats because migrants are threatening to throw themselves or children overboard if they are forced to turn back.

Authorities are abiding by international law which means the boats cannot be turned around, and British and French naval vessels are shadowing the dinghies in case they come into difficulties.

But Mr Farage claimed the Government are ‘hiding’ the true number of migrants, and demanded Home Secretary Priti Patel ‘tell us the truth’ about the figures.

The Home Office have rejected his remarks as ‘completely untrue’, adding that the boat Mr Farage saw was already under their observation.

Speaking to MailOnline, Mr Farage said the Home Office had told him five boats and 70 migrants had been intercepted on Wednesday, four of them by 4.50am and the last at 2.05pm.

But the former MEP says that he came across another boat at around 8.30am which was ‘not reported’, he alleged.

‘Why was this boat not listed in the official figures. There is a suspicion that they are not giving us the true figures,’ he said today, adding it would only take 45 minutes for the boat to reach Dover.

‘We counted 22 migrants on that boat and they have not been included in the Home Office figures.

‘I believe the Government are hiding the true number of migrants making it to the UK.’

A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘These remarks are completely untrue. Border Force intercepted five boats that day.

‘The one ‘spotted’ by Mr Farage was already on our radar when he called it in and was included in the figures we gave out.’

MailOnline have contacted the Coastguard over Mr Farage’s emergency call on Wednesday morning.

Mr Farage took to the Channel in a chartered fishing boat on Wednesday and ‘rescued’ more than 20 migrants crammed in two dinghies who were seen desperately trying to bail out water.

His vessel contacted the Coastguard, who dispatched RNLI rescue vessels to the scene to save the people on the packed dinghy.

In footage posted to his twitter, the former MEP claims to spot a French naval vessel ‘escorting’ migrant boats into UK waters, before the ship turns around.

Speaking after his return to Dover, Mr Farage said: ‘An astonishing morning mid-Channel. A hugely overloaded boat was bailing out water as we approached with 20 migrants on board.

‘It is just outrageous after all the money we have sent to France to deal with this problem that the French Navy now escort illegal migrants into UK waters.’

Under obligations to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), authorities cannot intervene with the vessels unless they are invited to do so.

It is also easier for the Home Office to stop entrance into the UK on land, either by working with French authorities or by rejecting asylum requests where conditions are not met.

France was able to stop around 100 people attempting to make the journey over the weekend.

Mr Farage was previously criticised for being photographed on a fact-finding trip to Dover while strict coronavirus lockdown rules were still in place.

The total number of migrants who have crossed the Channel this year stands at 1,590, closing in on the 1,890 who made it during the whole of 2019.

Of that tally, at least 1,149 have reached the UK since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the lockdown in March.

The 588 who have made it to Britain so far this month have eclipsed April’s record figure of 523 – with still more than a week left to go.

On May 8, 145 migrants made it in eight boats – a record for a single day.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has made repeated claims of clamping down on crossings, but the crisis has continued to worsen.

The changing weather conditions also make for an easier trip across the perilous Dover Strait shipping lane.

In one case, around 13 refugees were pictured crammed on one dinghy alongside a Border Force vessel and a large French boat in the middle of the English Channel.

The Coastguard launched its fixed-wing aircraft to work alongside the Border Force vessels Hunter and Speedwell, plus the Dover lifeboat.

Two French vessels are also said to be involved.

Mr Philp, the Minister for Immigration Compliance and the Courts, earlier said: ‘We are working tirelessly with the French to stop these illegally-facilitated crossings, sharing criminal intelligence with the NCA and French authorities.

‘And a substantial French law enforcement deployment last weekend prevented over 100 migrants from making the crossings – with the French also stopping migrants today.

‘Migrants should not risk their lives leaving a safe country and we will look return those who did today where possible.’

A Coastguard spokesman said: ‘Her Majesty’s Coastguard has coordinated search and rescue responses to a number of incidents off Kent today, working with Border Force.

‘We sent the Dover RNLI lifeboat, Border Force vessels Hunter and Speedwell and the HM Coastguard fixed-wing aircraft. We are committed to safeguarding life around the seas and coastal areas of this country.

‘HM Coastguard is only concerned with preservation of life, rescuing those in trouble and bringing them safely back to shore, where they will be handed over to the relevant partner emergency services or authorities.’

Care4Calais founder Clare Moseley estimates there are up to 200 child migrants living in squalor in settlements across Calais – most of them unaccompanied.

There are currently around 500 people in one camp in Calais, while 240 are spread out across three smaller sites. At a fifth camp, there are around 30.

Ms Moseley said the youngest unaccompanied child she has met in a camp is a 10-year-old Afghan boy. She has also met a 13-year-old girl without any parents.

She said: ‘That’s a rough figure. At any point, around 20 per cent of the refugees are under 18. A lot of them come from Sudan, where they could be recruited as soldiers.

‘And some are from Afghanistan. They might have lost their parents and are trying to join other people in the UK.

‘Coronavirus has made the conditions even worse for them so they are even more desperate to get to the UK. These people have nothing to lose.’

A Home Office spokesman previously said: ‘The government takes the welfare of unaccompanied children very seriously and provides funding to local authorities, including Kent, as a contribution to the cost of supporting unaccompanied children and those who leave care.

‘This funding was significantly increased in May 2019.’