Priti Patel told France is 'making a mockery' of UK by refusing to return Channel migrants

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Priti Patel has been accused of letting the French “making a mockery” of the British through their refusal to apprehend illegal Channel migrants at sea and return them to France.

The Home Secretary faced a backlash from Tory MPs who warned her new £54 million deal with the French would be “throwing good money after bad” unless she persuaded France to adopt tougher tactics at sea.

It came as nearly 100 migrants reached the UK on Wednesday morning, following a record daily total of 430 on Monday and 287 on Tuesday, pushing the total for the year so far past the 8,417 during the whole of 2020.

Tim Loughton, a former Conservative minister, said international maritime lawyers had ruled that the French could intercept migrants’ boats at sea, apprehend them and return them to France.

Border Force vessels were also legally entitled to use the same tactics on boats when they reached British waters in the Channel and return them to France if the French agreed, he told the Home Affairs Committee.

It was justified because the migrants were guilty of two crimes - of entering the UK illegally and paying money to organised trafficking gangs.

Yet, Mr Loughton said: "Yesterday we had a French military naval vessel escorting one of the boats into British territorial waters, and then tried to hand over the occupants to a boat full of journalists.

"This is ridiculous and it makes a mockery of it, so just giving the French more money to carry on doing what they're doing badly is not going to solve the problem.”

His comments followed a new Anglo-French agreement in which Britain will pay France £54 million to boost police and surveillance on the French beaches in a bid to prevent the migrants setting out for the UK. It follows a similar £28 million package last October.

Mr Loughton said the number of interceptions by the French at sea had fallen while the number of migrants had more than doubled since the £28 million last year. “Is not giving the French another £54 million throwing good money after bad,” he said.

Ms Patel said she had "absolutely" discussed with the French their obligations under international law to return migrants trying to cross the Channel to their territory. "I have absolutely discussed directly with my French counterpart," the Home Secretary said.

She continued: "We have absolutely been looking at what we can do at sea in terms of maritime tactics all within the legal framework, absolutely within the legal framework, of saving lives at sea and international maritime law and the French are aware of that as well. They absolutely know what their responsibilities are."

But she said the French had a “different interpretation” of the laws on saving lives at sea. “They would argue they are doing their best but….on saving life at sea, they have a different application,” she said.

The approach was confirmed earlier by the French MP for Calais Pierre-Henri Dumont who said: “If they are small boats migrants and are not asking for help, we are not supposed to intervene. It is not forbidden for people to be at sea.

“We have no legal basis to intervene when they are in French waters at sea.”

He further added to UK embarrassment by claiming the £54 million deal is pointless because migrants will “just find somewhere else to cross.”

“The fact is, having more money, having more police, having more controls will not prevent more crossing attempts. We have too many kilometers of shore to monitor. They can hide in a lot of places, there are a lot of roads, woods and trees.

“So even if you are monitoring 100 per cent of a small or large part of the French coast the smugglers will find somewhere to cross somewhere else. If it's not Calais they will go to Normandy, if not Normandy then Belgium or the Netherlands.”

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