The government has been accused of “putting more lives at risk” in the English Channel as crossings continue a year after at least 27 people, including children and a pregnant woman, drowned.
Suella Braverman admitted on Wednesday that ministers had lost control of Britain’s borders, while the Home Office’s top official said there was no proof the Rwanda scheme would be effective as a deterrent.
A year after a dinghy sank attempting the crossing in the worst disaster of its kind, charities warned that the government was driving more people into dangerous dinghies with “hostile policies that prioritise keeping people out over keeping people safe”.
Appearing before parliament’s home affairs committee, Ms Braverman offered her “condolences and thoughts” to the victims’ loved ones, but said they had taken a “lethal, dangerous journey”.
“It is a tragedy on a scale that is unacceptable,” she added. “I am very sorry and saddened that happened and any loss of life in this instance is of great sadness.”
Conservative MP Tim Loughton confronted the home secretary about a “shortage of safe and legal routes” for asylum seekers.
Ms Braverman struggled to reply when he asked what options, other than a small-boat crossing, would be open to a 16-year-old boy fleeing war in Africa and trying to join relatives in the UK.
“If you are able to get to the UK you would be able to put in your application for asylum,” she said.
But when asked how the boy would reach the UK if he did not have the means or documents to board a flight, the home secretary did not respond and asked Home Office officials on the panel to answer instead.
The government was warned three years ago that small-boat crossings were rising because of efforts to secure French ferry and lorry ports, and a lack of alternatives.
“A policy that focuses exclusively on closing borders will drive migrants to take more dangerous routes and push them into the hands of criminal groups,” a November 2019 parliamentary report said.
“In the absence of robust and accessible legal routes for seeking asylum in the UK, those with a claim are left with little choice but to make dangerous journeys by land and sea.”
Tory Lee Anderson said the Home Office was “not fit for purpose” and asked the home secretary if she was spending millions a day on hotel places for asylum seekers because her department “has failed to control our borders”.
Ms Braverman replied: “We have failed to control our borders, yes. That’s why the prime minister and myself are absolutely determined to fix this problem.”
Charities accused ministers of “refusing to accept reality” by attempting to deter crossings with the Rwanda scheme and new laws, rather than creating alternatives.
Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, said the situation was “putting more lives at risk”, adding: “While leaders waste time with cruel and costly deterrence plans – such as their deportation deal with Rwanda – the lack of safe routes means more people than ever feel they have no other choice but to make the dangerous journey across the Channel. It’s time for a new approach.”
He called the boat disaster on 24 November 2021 an “avoidable tragedy borne out of a hostile government policy that prioritises keeping people out over keeping people safe”.
Vigils will be held for the victims in Folkestone, Dunkirk and Parliament Square on Thursday evening, as relatives demand answers about why they were not rescued.
A French investigation into the disaster has shown that dinghy passengers made multiple calls for help for more than two hours.
Leaked documents show that when a survivor begging for help told French authorities people were in the water, they replied: “Yes, but you are in English waters.”
A separate probe into Britain’s response by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) is understood to be in its early stages and has not set a date for releasing its findings.
Relatives of the drowned victims say they have not yet been contacted by British investigators and have vowed to get justice.
Zana Mamand Mohammad, the brother of one of the victims, said: “My teenage brother, one year after your disappearance, I have tried non-stop to find anything about you and I have knocked on every door. I still stare at my phone hoping for a message or call from you. I am doing my best to obtain justice for you.”
Clare Moseley, founder of the Care4Calais charity, accused authorities of “callousness and apathy”, adding: “The families need answers now and we must know what lessons should be learned from this tragedy before more people die.”
Under British law, people must be physically present in the country to claim asylum, but there is no visa for reaching the UK for that purpose.
The latest official figures show that 93 per cent of people making small-boat crossings so far this year have claimed asylum.
The Rwanda deal seeks to force people to the east African country without considering their claims, because they have travelled through France or other safe countries.
Ms Braverman, who previously said it was her “dream” to see a plane take off for Kigali, told the committee she was “very confident we will be able to operationalise it” despite ongoing legal challenges.
Former home secretary Priti Patel made a rare ministerial direction to force the policy through earlier this year, after Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft concluded that there was no proof of value for public money.
He told the home affairs committee his assessment had not changed, and confirmed that the government had already given Rwanda £140m.
“The purpose of the scheme is deterrence,” Mr Rycroft said. “Success will not be measured in how many thousands of people will be relocated to Rwanda but more by how many people do not make the dangerous crossing of the Channel.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “Our thoughts are with the families of all of those who lost their lives in the tragic incident last November.
“We cannot have a repeat of this devastating event which is why we are working with our international partners to disrupt the people smuggling gangs behind these dangerous crossings who are putting lives at risk with every journey they arrange.
“As is standard practice in such circumstances, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch is conducting a safety investigation focusing on the emergency response to the incident, which HM Coastguard and the Home Office are fully cooperating with.”