'Inflammatory': UK interior minister Suella Braverman slammed over migrant 'invasion' remark

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By Alasdair Sandford  & Euronews  with Reuters
A view of people thought to be migrants at the Manston immigration short-term holding facility in Thanet, England Monday, Oct. 31, 2022.
A view of people thought to be migrants at the Manston immigration short-term holding facility in Thanet, England Monday, Oct. 31, 2022.   -   Copyright  Gareth Fuller/PA via AP

British Home Secretary Suella Braverman has been accused of using inflammatory language after describing the arrival of asylum seekers on England's southern coast as an "invasion".

Her comments in parliament on Monday came a day after a man used fire bombs to attack an immigration processing centre in the port town of Dover.

The number of people crossing the English Channel in small boats has soared this year, putting enormous pressure on border staff, facilities and the system dealing with their claims.

"The British people deserve to know which party is serious about stopping the invasion on our southern coast and which party is not," Braverman, the British interior minister, told the House of Commons in response to opposition criticism.

"Some 40,000 people have arrived on the south coast this year alone. Many of them facilitated by criminal gangs, some of them actual members of criminal gangs. So, let's stop pretending that they are all refugees in distress."

Robert Jenrick, an immigration minister in Braverman's department, appeared to distance himself from her language.

"I think in my role you have to choose your terminology wisely and we don't want to see incidents like the one that occurred in Dover happen again," he said on Tuesday. But he claimed his boss's words reflected the scale of the challenge.

Yvette Cooper, the home affairs spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, said the rhetoric had deteriorated in line with the government's performance.

"No Home Secretary who was serious about public safety or national security would use highly inflammatory language on the day after a dangerous petrol bomb attack," she said.

"To describe the serious and complex situation created by the asylum crisis as an “invasion” is appalling, wrong and dangerous," tweeted the UK Refugee Council. "These are men, women and children fleeing war, persecution and conflict."

Government 'playing to right wing'

The number of people crossing the Channel in dinghies and other small craft has sharply risen to some 40,000 this year, from 28,000 in all of 2021 and 8,500 in 2020.

Last week a committee of MPs was told there had been a "very significant increase" in adult single men arriving from Albania — described by the UK government in August as "a safe and prosperous country".

Dan O'Mahoney, the UK's senior official charged with combatting illegal migration across the Channel, described the rise in the number of Albanians as "exponential" and said the influx was "50 - 50 an asylum problem and an illegal migration problem".

Braverman has also been accused of failing to listen to legal advice on the prolonged detention of migrants at another processing centre, and failing to secure adequate accommodation, both claims she has denied.

Following Sunday's petrol bomb attack in Dover, hundreds of people who crossed the English Channel in small boats have been moved to Manston, a former airfield in southeast England. 

There already were 3,000 people at the facility, which is intended to hold about half that number for less than 24 hours at a time. But refugee groups say some people have been stuck there for weeks.

Roger Gale, the local MP from Braverman's own ruling Conservative Party, said her predecessors had found alternative accommodation such as hotels but that had stopped when she took over.

"I don't accept or trust this home secretary's word," he told Times Radio. "She is only really interested in playing to the right wing."

Last week conditions at the site at Manston in Kent were described by David Neal, Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, as "pretty wretched". He told MPs there had been cases of diphtheria and that “it’s a really dangerous situation”.

"When we face so many arrivals so quickly, it is practically impossible to procure over a thousand beds at such short notice," Suella Braverman told parliament on Monday, adding that the government was "working tirelessly to improve facilities", but there were "competing and heavy demands on housing stock, including for Ukrainians, Afghans and social housing".

"I have worked hard to find alternative accommodation to relieve the pressure at Manston. What I have refused to do is to prematurely release thousands of people into local communities without having anywhere for them to stay," the minister added, insisting she had never ignored legal advice.

Pledge to 'work more closely' with France

The UK receives fewer asylum-seekers than many European nations, including France and Germany. The sharp increase in the number making the trip in small boats partly reflects the success in tightening security at ports and the Channel Tunnel, preventing migrants from boarding lorries.

The UK and France have wrangled over how to stop the people-smuggling gangs that organise the dangerous cross-Channel journeys.

Giving evidence to MPs last week, the UK's Clandestine Channel Threat Commander Dan O'Mahoney praised the French authorities for having doubled the number of migrants they stopped from making the journey, as well as the number of boats they destroyed.

Last month Braverman told the Conservative Party conference that she many migrants were "leaving a safe country like France and abusing our asylum system," adding that she wanted to work more closely with French authorities "to get more out of our partnership".

Appointed in September by former prime minister Liz Truss, the interior minister is an enthusiastic supporter of the UK's controversial, stalled plan to send people arriving in small boats on a one-way journey to Rwanda.

The government argues it will deter people from crossing the Channel and break the business model of smuggling gangs, but critics say the plan is immoral and impractical and it is being challenged in the courts. A similar plan is also on the cards in Denmark.

Critics accuse the government of allowing a backlog of asylum cases to develop, and of failing to put contingency plans in place despite warnings that the number of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats was likely to soar.

Additional sources • AP