Migrant crossings ‘becoming a major threat’ to the UK border

Michael Drummond, PA South East Correspondent

Migrants risking their lives crossing the dangerous English Channel in huge numbers are becoming a “major threat” to the UK Border, a committee has heard.

Tony Smith CBE, a former head of the Border Force, told the Commons home affairs committee on Friday 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.

A French patrol boat as migrants were picked up by French authorities in the English Channel (Marine Nationale)

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

More migrants were picked up by French authorities on Friday and others are believed to have crossed to Britain.

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.”

Tony Smith, a former head of the Border Force (Tony Smith/Fortinus Global)

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.