Tensions are mounting between the UK and France over migrant crossings in the Channel after the number of people who have reached UK shores in small boats this year surpassed 4,000.
Families with young children were among hundreds of people who came ashore near Dover this weekend, including 151 on Saturday, the Home Office confirmed.
The latest arrivals put the total number of people reaching the UK in small boats in 2020 at more than 4,100, according to analysis by PA Media. The Home Office does not provide a running total.
On Sunday, the French government hit back at accusations by UK ministers that it was not addressing the problem of migrants crossing the Channel. France’s interior minister, Gerard Darmanin, is to meet Chris Philp, the UK minister for immigration compliance, in Paris on Tuesday.
The meeting is likely to be tense, as Philp has suggested that France is not doing enough and wrote an article this weekend telling Paris what it “must do” to tackle the problem. It has been claimed that the French government is demanding an additional £30m from the UK to fund patrols on its northern coast.
An interior ministry spokesperson said surveillance units were deployed along France’s northern coast where migrant boats are setting off and that reinforcements had been deployed recently to combat the rise in crossings. Three security operations have been carried out over the last three weeks involving more than 1,000 migrants, they said.
“The security forces are fully engaged in the fight against the [people] smuggling networks. Daily rescue operations at sea are carried out daily to save men, women and children attempting this crossing at the risk to their lives,” the spokesperson added.
French authorities say they have stopped five times more crossings in the first six months of this year than last year.
“In July 2020 we stopped 10 times more crossings than in July 2019 and four times more boats and other material were discovered in the dunes,” they said, adding: “This phenomenon is a common problem for France and the United Kingdom and requires a common operational response. France has initiated talks to establish the parameters.
“A battle plan against the illegal sea crossings, drawn up in collaboration with the British authorities, is in the process of being finalised to reinforce the means of control along the coast and upstream of the main crossing points.”
As the number seeking asylum in the UK rises, the Home Office has asked the Royal Navy for help, and a former Royal Marine has been appointed “clandestine Channel threat commander” to make the route across the Dover strait “unviable”.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights programme director, said deploying the navy to prevent people exercising their right to seek asylum in the UK would be “unlawful, reckless and dangerous”.
“What is needed is cooperation with France to share responsibility for providing a place of safety, including the UK government reuniting families and enabling more people to travel safely to make asylum claims in this country,” he said.
So far in August more than 650 people have successfully reached British shores in small boats, the majority of whom arrived this week.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, previously said the crossings would become an “infrequent phenomenon” and has sought to blame her French counterparts for the increase.
Patel on Saturday appointed a former Royal Marine, Dan O’Mahoney, as “clandestine Channel threat commander”. O’Mahoney takes up the role having served since 2019 as director of the UK’s joint maritime security centre.
The Home Office said O’Mahoney would urgently explore tougher action in France, including stronger enforcement measures, interceptions at sea, and the direct return of boats.
Bridget Chapman, the spokeswoman for the Kent Refugee Action Network, said: “The government’s handling of this issue is becoming increasingly chaotic, with elements of sabre-rattling. Nothing they have done so far has worked. They have spent millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money fortifying the port at Calais, have increased patrols in the Channel, and are now escalating a failing strategy by calling in the military to deal with a humanitarian situation.”
Chapman called for Patel and her French counterparts to offer people a safe and legal route to the UK. She added: “That would close this route overnight, would save lives, and we would know exactly who was arriving and when.”
The Home Office denied reports in the Mail on Sunday that prisons would be used to house people arriving in the UK via the Channel. “We do not use prisons to house migrants and there are no plans to do so,” the department said. “Those who make the perilous journey are medically checked, interviewed by immigration officers, and then held in immigration detention.” It has also denied underestimating the number of arrivals.