Britain and France have agreed to beef up efforts to stop migrants from crossing the English Channel in small boats, according to a UK government minister who took part in talks in Paris on Tuesday.
Immigration minister Chris Philp said that London and Paris were working to develop what he called a "comprehensive action plan" to make the route unviable. The talks between the two countries follow a recent surge in people trying to reach the UK from France.
"We have worked on a joint operational plan, a revised, new operational plan, with the objective in mind of completely cutting this route," Philp told Sky News, without giving more details.
The UK wants more action taken to prevent migrant Channel crossings and has said it is considering possible changes to asylum laws.
Witnesses spotted more migrants on Tuesday packed into flimsy sea craft trying to make the route, 32 kilometres at its narrowest point, across one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Amid favourable weather conditions over the past few days, smugglers have stepped up efforts to encourage people to make the journey in dinghies and other vessels.
More than 650 have arrived so far in August — including 235 in a single day at the beginning of the month — with pregnant women, babies and unaccompanied children among them. The UK's Border Force intercepted another 20 migrants — from Syria — on Monday.
Around 4,000 people are estimated to have reached the UK this year after crossing the Channel in small boats.
Euronews correspondent Victoria Smith reported from Dover that many unaccompanied older teenagers were among the recent arrivals and that the authorities were struggling to accommodate them.
Legal changes considered
On Monday Boris Johnson criticised people smugglers as "cruel and criminal gangs" that were risking the lives of the vulnerable, saying the Channel crossings amounted to a "very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do".
The government wanted to work with the French authorities to curb the problem, the prime minister added. He said possible legal changes were being considered, as once the migrants entered the country "it is very, very difficult to then send them away again even though blatantly they've come here illegally".
The UK blames current asylum rules for the relatively low number of people who are returned to the continent. Under EU law — still being followed by the UK during the 11-month post-Brexit transition period — asylum applications can be transferred to the first member state the migrant entered.
But the British government says the so-called Dublin regulations — which will cease to have effect in the UK from next January — are vulnerable to abuse. It wants a new agreement amid calls for a tougher approach from some MPs in the ruling Conservative Party.
The European Commission wants to replace the current system to manage migrant flows better, mainly due to large-scale arrivals in southern Europe.
The Refugee Council — which defends the rights of asylum-seekers in the UK — tweeted that "there is no such thing as an "illegal' asylum-seeker", pointing out that the 1951 Refugee Convention recognises people may use irregular means to escape to another country and make a legitimate claim.
UK vows to 'break up' migrant route
The UK government deployed a Royal Air Force surveillance plane to monitor the sea for boats carrying migrants.
British home secretary Priti Patel — who visited the port of Dover on Monday — hinted at tougher sentences for human traffickers, describing the number of migrant crossings as "absolutely appalling and shameful" and vowing to "break this route up".
She has appointed a former Royal Marine commando as "clandestine Channel threat commander" to try and make unauthorised sea crossings "unviable". Dan O’Mahoney, the newly-appointed Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, took part in Tuesday's talks in Paris and will return to France next week.
Patel has also said the Royal Navy could be called in to prevent people from reaching UK shores, a move criticised by senior officials and politicians as impractical and potentially dangerous.
Pierre-Henri Dumont, a French MP from the right-wing Les Républicains party representing the northern port of Calais, slammed the idea as a "political measure" which "won't change anything".
There have been calls from Britain for the French to do more to prevent and deter people from crossing the Channel. The French interior ministry says it stopped 10 times more journeys in July, compared to the same period last year.
French authorities routinely pick up migrants trying to illegally cross the Channel. On Sunday, rescuers retrieved 17 migrants from a rubber dinghy in distress off Calais.
Over the past week, French rescuers have picked up 125 migrants from kayaks, rubber boats or other small vessels, according to near-daily statements from the regional maritime authority.
Last month Britain and France agreed to set up a joint intelligence unit to allow for better exchanges of information about people-smuggling networks. France has also taken action to close down migrant camps that had sprung up along its northern coast.
France received nearly three times more first-time asylum applications than did the UK in the first quarter of 2020 — over 28,000 compared to 10,500 — according to EU figures.
'Inflammatory language' criticised
Migrants have long used northern France as a launching point to get to Britain, either in trucks through the Channel Tunnel or on ferries. As that has become more difficult amid tighter security measures, increasing numbers have turned to small boats organised by people smugglers.
Many of them come from some of the poorest and most conflict-torn zones in the world, having travelled from the Middle East, Africa or Asia.
More than 20 politicians from the UK's ruling Conservative Party wrote a letter to the government on Monday calling for "stronger enforcement" efforts against "invading migrants".
Lisa Doyle, the Refugee Council's Advocacy Director, accused Boris Johnson of using "inaccurate and inflammatory language" to describe the plight of those seeking to reach the UK.
"If there were more safe and regular routes in place for people seeking asylum – such as a strong resettlement programme, humanitarian visas and reformed family reunion rules – the number of Channel crossings would decline sharply," the Council said earlier on Twitter.
EU statistics show there were more than 612,700 first-time asylum applications across the bloc in 2019, while British government figures say the UK received just over 35,000 in the year to March 2020.
The number of applications in the EU27 in the first quarter of 2020 — more than 150,000 — represents 336 per million population, according to EU estimates. France received 419 applications per million, while the UK's number is put at 158 per million inhabitants.