With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the number of migrants trying to cross the English channel in small boats and what the Government are doing in response.
Before that, I know the whole House will want to join me in sending our thoughts and prayers to those injured in the attack at Manchester Victoria station on new year’s eve and to all those affected by that cruel and senseless act. I also thank the emergency services for their courageous response. Thankfully there were no fatalities, and I am pleased to say that all three victims have now been discharged from hospital.
Let me turn to the issue of the English channel migrant crossings. Over recent weeks, we saw a sharp increase in the number of migrants attempting to cross the channel to the UK in small boats. Over 500 migrants, mostly Iranian, attempted to travel to the UK on small vessels in 2018; 80% of them attempted this in the last three months of the year. About 40% of those involved in these attempts were either disrupted by French law enforcement or returned to France via French agencies. Since
I am sure the House will want to join me in thanking all the law enforcement agencies and all those involved in the response for their tireless efforts over Christmas and the new year. This includes those from the Border Force, immigration enforcement, the coastguard, the National Crime Agency and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, many of whom I met in Dover last week. I would also like to thank our French law enforcement partners for their efforts to date, which have been collaborative, swift and thorough.
The English channel contains some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, the weather conditions are often treacherous and the inflatable boats being used are woefully ill-equipped to make such dangerous journeys. The migrants who choose to make the trip are putting their lives in grave danger, and they can at times also create dangerous situations for our rescue services.
The reasons behind the increased crossings are diverse, and in many cases are outside our control. First, instability in regions such as the middle east and north Africa are driving people out of their homes in search of better lives in Europe. Secondly, organised crime groups are preying on and profiting from these vulnerable and often desperate people. They are falsely promising them safe crossings to the UK, even though the journey is one of the most hazardous and most dangerous possible. Thirdly, strengthened security at the French-UK border has meant that it has become increasingly difficult for stowaways illegally to enter the UK in trucks and cars, leading to more reckless attempts by boat.
I have been very clear that robust action is needed to protect people and our borders and to deter illegal migration. Over the festive period, I took the decision to declare the situation a major incident. I appointed a dedicated gold command, and I stepped up the UK’s response.
As part of joint action agreed with the French, I have ordered two UK Border Force boats to be redeployed from overseas to patrol the channel. That is in addition to the two already undertaking enhanced patrols in these waters. That will mean four Border Force cutters in total. That is in addition to the two coastal patrol vessels currently operating and the aerial surveillance of the area. Last week, I also requested additional help from the Ministry of Defence while we await the return of the two boats currently overseas. I am grateful that the Royal Navy has kindly offered the use of HMS Mersey, which started patrols on Friday.
I am continuing to discuss with the French what more they can do to stop people from attempting to make these crossings from France in the first place. I welcome the action plan that the French outlined just this Friday, which includes a commitment to increase surveillance and security in maritime areas, prevention campaigns in French coastal areas to stop people from setting off in a boat in the first place and a reinforced fight against smuggling gangs. I am pleased to say that the National Crime Agency has also redoubled its efforts. Just last week, two men were arrested on suspicion of the illegal movement of migrants.
In addition, we are doing important work in the home countries of would be migrants to reduce the factors that compel them to make these dangerous journeys in the first place. For example, we are helping to create jobs and build infrastructure, tackling modern slavery, providing education and delivering life-saving humanitarian assistance in response to conflicts and natural disasters. We are also doing important work to undermine organised crime groups, and we have committed £2.7 billion to the humanitarian response in Syria, making us the second biggest bilateral donor to the region. We are on track to resettle 20,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria by 2020, as well as up to 3,000 of the most vulnerable people from the middle east and north Africa, including children at risk of exploitation and abuse. In 2017, the UK resettled more refugees under national resettlement schemes than any other EU state.
Let me reassure the House that I am continuing to monitor the issue of channel crossings daily. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that these crossings have provoked a debate, but I am not afraid to say that I think that some legitimate questions need to be asked. Why, for instance, are so many people choosing to cross the channel from France to the UK when France itself is a safe country? The widely accepted international principle is that those seeking asylum should claim it in the first safe country that they reach, be that France or elsewhere. Indeed, many asylum seekers do just that. Domestic legislation from 2004 clearly states that, if an individual travels through a safe third country and fails to claim asylum, it will be taken into account in assessing the credibility of their claim. Following these recent events, I have instructed my officials to look at how we can tighten this still further and ensure that these provisions are working effectively.
Britain has a proud tradition of welcoming and protecting asylum seekers and we have a long history of accepting economic migrants too—people like my very own parents—but all these routes need to be safe and they need to be controlled, which getting in a rubber dinghy is not. That is why I will not accept these channel crossings as just a fact of life. Safeguarding lives and protecting the UK border are crucial Home Office priorities. While we have obligations to genuine asylum seekers, and we will uphold them, we will not stand by and allow reckless criminals to take advantage of vulnerable people. Encouraging people to cross the channel dangerously to come here is not an act of compassion, so I will continue to do all I can to stop these dangerous crossings. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Home Secretary for prior sight of his statement. Opposition Members join him in sending our thoughts and prayers to those injured in the attack at Manchester Victoria station, and we thank the emergency services for their courage.
Does the Home Secretary share my concern that we should be careful not to heighten a potentially toxic atmosphere on migration as the Brexit debate reaches its climax? However, the whole House agrees that the public deserve the assurance that our borders are secure. Nobody in this House believes that these crossings should be just a fact of life, not least because these desperate people are putting their lives in terrible danger. However, is he aware that his predecessor—the then Home Secretary, Mrs May—took the decision in 2012 to scrap an aerial surveillance programme of the entire coastline, presumably because of the dictates of austerity? Does he accept that this decision, in the words of the then Security Minister, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, left us
“more naked than we would otherwise have been”,
and that we are now scrambling to catch up by using the armed forces?
The Home Secretary knows that a little over 200 people arrived here crossing the channel in the entire final three months of last year. One migrant making that dangerous crossing is one too many, but does he appreciate that some people might think that describing this as a major incident is an overstatement, when we consider that, at the height of the Mediterranean crisis, Greece was seeing hundreds of people a day landing on its beaches?
The Home Secretary is correct to make the point about the risk to human life. We know that ruthless people smugglers put desperate people in unseaworthy craft, with no one on board who is any type of seaman, and they distribute fake lifejackets—and all this in the busiest shipping lanes in the world. These people smugglers are putting people’s lives at risk for mere financial gain. However, does the Home Secretary accept that there can be no question of turning back asylum seekers who have reached British waters? That would be to put this country outside international law.
May I also remind the Home Secretary that in this country we operate under the rule of law? In this case, we are bound by the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees. Does he accept that under the convention, to which we are a signatory, refugees have a right to seek asylum here? Taking the failure to claim in the first safe country into account is one thing; claiming that it entirely nullifies the asylum claim is quite wrong. Refugees may have cultural, family or language reasons to claim in this country. Does he understand that it is not for him as Home Secretary, or anyone else, to claim that someone is not a genuine refugee without examining their case?
I welcome the increased co-operation with the French and the French action plan outlined on Friday. The important thing is not bellicose statements, but to stop people making dangerous crossings in the first place.
On the deployment of the Royal Navy, it seems to some that the Home Secretary was in some type of competition with the Defence Secretary as to who can appear more bellicose towards groups of Iranian refugees in their rubber dinghies. Serious questions arise, however. What will be the total cost to the Home Office of this deployment and how will it be funded? What will be the cost per person rescued? How many of the people smugglers have been prevented and detained? What of the operations that were taking place in the Mediterranean which have apparently now been suspended? Can the Home Secretary explain what contingency measures will be put in place, so as not to leave a gaping hole in existing co-ordinated rescue and interdiction efforts? I ask the Home Secretary please to tell the House that all of those issues have been considered and addressed or are in hand, otherwise unkind people might be forced to conclude that this major incident had little to do with a national crisis but more to do with positioning for the forthcoming Tory leadership battle.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments. Let me take this opportunity to wish her and her team a happy new year. She raised a number of points. Let me try to tackle them in order.
This has nothing to do with the Brexit debate or the legitimate debate taking place around Brexit on future immigration and related issues. This is all about protecting our borders and protecting human life: dealing with a situation here and now. That is all it should be about.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the previous Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister. In fact, when she was Home Secretary she did a great deal to deal with illegal migration, especially from France. For example, the work on the Sandhurst agreement was initiated by her as Home Secretary and then continued by her as Prime Minister. As I mentioned in my statement, there is some evidence that as it has become harder on some other routes for people to enter the UK by clandestine means—by ferry, train or car—they are turning to more dangerous routes. We need to address them as well.
The right hon. Lady questioned whether this should have been designated a major incident. Let me make two brief points. First, there has been a significant increase in the number of crossings using small boats across the English channel. As I said, there were 543 attempts in 2018. Not all were successful, with roughly 40% being disrupted. Some 80% took place in the past three months, particularly in December. There is a definite increasing trend. It needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible, so that it does not get completely out of control.
The right hon. Lady may think—maybe it is suggested through her question—that 543 attempted crossings is not very much relative to the total number of asylum claims every year. The problem—this is the real issue—is that this is a very dangerous way to try to enter the UK. It is incredibly dangerous. This is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. Often these people will travel at night with no lights and no lifejackets. They are taking an incredibly dangerous journey that puts at risk not just their lives but the lives of those who rescue them, such as the RNLI and others. It is the danger that that represents which requires us to take more action. It is one of the reasons, alongside protecting the border, why this is a major incident. I do not think anyone in this House would want to be in a position knowing that the Government have not done everything they reasonably can to protect human life as well as our borders.
I gently ask the right hon. Lady—I know she means well and that she values human life as much as anyone else in this House—please not to use this issue as some kind of political football. This is about protecting human life and protecting our borders.
Let me turn to the other questions the right hon. Lady raised. On the first safe country principle, she mentioned the 1951 refugee convention. The first safe country principle is well established and widely accepted in international law. The Prime Minister herself referred to it in her speech at the UN General Assembly last year. It is a principle indirectly supported through the new global compact for migration and the global compact for refugees. It is a principle legally accepted by the UNHCR when it explicitly recognised the concept in its paper that set out the legal precedent on the agreement between the EU and Turkey. Very importantly, it is a principle at the heart of the EU’s own common European asylum system. In the 2005 procedures directive, it is explicitly stated that an asylum seeker should claim asylum in their first safe country, otherwise it can be declared inadmissible if it is claimed in another country. That is repeated in the 2004 qualification directive. It is also a principle that underpins the Dublin regulation. The whole point of the Dublin regulation is that if someone has passed through another EU safe country, it is expected that they claim asylum first there. It is a principle that I hope she would support, notwithstanding that it was also embedded in domestic legislation passed in 2004 by a Labour Government. I understand that she did not vote against that Act.
Lastly, the right hon. Lady asked me about the other activities in which the boats that I have asked to come back to the UK are involved. Those activities are very important. We will still be involved in international activities and humanitarian support. I believe we can balance both requirements domestically and internationally in the way we have set our plans. The Royal Navy is supporting while we fill the gap until those boats return.
This is a very important statement, but can we please show some brevity? It was an important question and we wanted a very full answer, but it was much longer than I would have expected. So please, can we have brevity in both questions and answers?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the safety and security of the people who try this most dangerous crossing. Given that, he is also right to say that people should claim asylum in the first safe country they come to—France is clearly that country—and for one very good reason: if they do not do so they will live in squalor while they seek to get across the channel, putting their own lives at risk. Has the Home Secretary checked how long the people trying to cross the channel have spent in France without declaring themselves as asylum seekers?
I agree very much with my right hon. Friend. It is not always possible to get a definitive answer. Many people are using France as a transit country: in many cases, they have entered through another EU country. The principle is very important. Those who encourage people not to claim asylum in the first safe country are encouraging them to take this dangerous journey and they should reflect on that.
Some 500 individuals have been so desperate as to risk an incredibly dangerous journey across the channel last year in what is probably better described as a human tragedy than a major incident. In response to the statement, let me say first that we must of course stop the organised crime gangs that encourage these perilous journeys. The Home Secretary mentioned two arrests, but how many people does he estimate are involved in facilitating these crossings, and does he anticipate further arrests and charges in the days ahead?
Secondly, we must above all protect lives. Will the Home Secretary confirm that that is the clear and unambiguous duty of all the ships being deployed to the channel? I share the shadow Home Secretary’s concerns about the implications of withdrawing two ships from operations in the Mediterranean. Will the Home Secretary say a little more about what that means for what we are able to achieve there?
Thirdly, we must properly, fairly and independently consider each asylum claim made on arrival and treat everyone with dignity and respect. It is here, unfortunately, that the Home Secretary has caused most concern in recent days. Despite the more moderate language in his statement, he reportedly said that “real, genuine” asylum seekers would not make such crossings and spoke of a need
“to send a very strong message that you won’t succeed” in making it to UK shores. That approach is factually, legally and morally wrong. It is actually pretty insulting to the many refugees who have contributed to this country who, for a whole host of legitimate reasons, made their way here through other safe countries. As he knows, the success rate of asylum applications from Iranians is particularly high.
Will the Home Secretary retract those remarks and confirm that all asylum applications will be considered solely on the basis of the refugee convention and of whether the applicant is a refugee, without any thought of sending messages? Will he take a humane and compassionate approach to possible third-country removals instead of tightening laws? If he does not, he will simply prolong the misery.
Like Ms Abbott, the hon. Gentleman challenges me to explain why this is a major incident. Declaring something a major incident allows us to bring more focus, more control and more resources. It is a well-established procedure in government, and I hope the whole House can support it. Bringing in more resources allows us to protect more human life as well as to protect our borders. I am sure he agrees that if one life were lost in this situation, that would be one life too many.
Of course, if the vessels that are currently there, which have been joined by the Royal Navy vessel and are to be joined by other vessels, come across any situation in which any life is in danger in any way, their first duty is to protect life. However, that is not their sole duty; they also have a duty to protect the border. In this case, they are working with the technology and equipment they have, with the support of aerial surveillance and the co-operation of the French navy and French vessels, to protect the border. That includes returning people, in many cases to the French coast, with the help of the French authorities.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned my comments last week about genuine asylum seekers. I absolutely stand by those comments. Our job is to protect and help genuine asylum seekers. It should not be a shock to him that, sometimes, people who claim asylum are not genuine asylum seekers. If we are to do more to protect those who really deserve it, we should absolutely focus our resources on them. Those who could claim asylum in another safe country and have every opportunity to do so should be encouraged to do so.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the calm and assured way in which he has dealt with this difficult matter. Is he satisfied that, throughout the camps and assembly areas they use in France, these poor people are made aware that if they come here by making this terrible crossing and they are not entitled to be here, they will be returned? That is very important.
My right hon. Friend has prised an offshore patrol vessel from the Royal Navy. The Navy has a lot of very underused assets called URNUs—university royal naval units—which have grossly underused Archer-class patrol vessels. May I suggest that if he needed more boats, he could easily have those vessels equipped with regular naval staff and used to great effect?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his suggestions. We are working closely with the Ministry of Defence. On his first point, we are sending, including via this statement, a very clear message: “If you have passed through a safe country”—that of course includes France—“we will seek to make your claim inadmissible, and you should think twice about taking that journey. Do not give your money to these people smugglers—these vile criminals—and do not take this dangerous journey. If you are seeking protection, seek protection in the first safe country that you can.”
I would like the Home Secretary to clarify what he just said. Is he seriously saying that he wants to make all first claims of asylum in this country inadmissible if people travelled through another country first? He will know that people often travel because they have family in this country and existing family reunion provisions do not work effectively, and that we are bound by international law. Is he seriously saying he wants to rip up our obligations under the refugee convention and international law? Does he realise the shame that his doing so would bring on our country?
Let me be clear with the right hon. Lady. I am not saying that at all. What I am saying is—[Interruption.] I am not saying that, and I will clarify. Every claim of course will be assessed on its own merits, but the point I am making is about the first safe country principle, which is well established. I mentioned in response to the shadow Home Secretary a number of international agreements. The concept has now been accepted by the UNHCR, and it is even in European rules, which apply to us through the common European asylum system. The principle is well established in the qualification directive and the asylum procedures directive, which are backed up by the Dublin regulation.
For example, articles 25 and 26 of the 2005 asylum procedures directive cover the principles of first safe country and inadmissibility of claims where people have travelled through safe countries. Indeed, the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, which is domestic legislation, clearly sets out that failure
“to take advantage of a reasonable opportunity” to claim asylum in a safe country shall be taken into account in assessing an individual’s credibility. That is an Act that Yvette Cooper voted for.
The heart-rending plight of those caught out in the channel, often having placed themselves in the hands of the modern-day equivalent of the slave trader, rightly worries us all, but surely the Home Secretary is right that, inevitably, nearly all of them will not be correctly classified as asylum seekers under the Dublin convention. Is it not clear that the closest possible co-operation with the French is required to ensure that these poor people do not end up on the high seas?
My right hon. Friend makes a number of good points, particularly on co-operation with the French. Thankfully, during the course of the last year in particular, we have had very good co-operation with the French, much of which was codified in the Sandhurst treaty. We are seeing good co-operation on this situation, including the announcement the French made on Friday. However, he is absolutely right that the more we can work with the French to stop these crossings in the first place, the better protection these people will have from the dangerous journey.
Taking something into account is not the same as seeking to make it inadmissible. Will the Home Secretary confirm which he means?
The Home Secretary knows that I raised the issue of illegal migrants coming to Kent in November, when he came before the Select Committee on Home Affairs. Then, there were around 100 individuals and 13 boats; in December, there were more than 95 individuals. He said there was a joint co-ordination centre with France that would resolve issues to a certain extent. Is he saying that joint co-ordination centre did not work, or were additional resources required?
I very much welcome the two additional cutters, which are coming from Gibraltar and Greece. When will they arrive and do what they need to do? Will their place be taken by our international counterparts? They, too, have a responsibility to ensure that those who would come in from north Africa and the Gulf are deterred from doing so in the first place.
My hon. Friend mentions the UK-France joint co-ordination centre now opened in Calais. It is not that it does not work—it makes an important contribution—but it is not enough on its own, and its work needed to be supplemented, which is why we have taken further action in recent weeks, including working much more closely with the French on disruptions. As I mentioned earlier, of all the crossings we know about, the French have successfully disrupted just over 40%. We need to step up law enforcement co-ordination—the French have recently made several arrests—and ensure better co-ordination of maritime patrols and shared intelligence, and that is exactly what we are doing.
Will the Home Secretary tell the House how many convictions of people traffickers there have been in the past 12 months and, given that intelligence-led policing is key to those convictions, what use the authorities have made of SIS II, Europol and—ultimately for bringing people to justice—Eurojust and the European arrest warrant?
Law enforcement work is an important part of this operation. Since April 2018, UK law enforcement authorities have disrupted 46 organised criminal gangs involved in people smuggling. In November 2018, two men were jailed for eight years each; in September 2018, seven members of an OCG were jailed with sentences totalling 48 years; and last February, two men were jailed for over nine years.
That is a very good question. It is important to keep this under constant review. Border Force has a limited number of vessels and a great deal of work to do, not just in the UK but as part of international operations. I asked for advice on redeployment, and once I had received it and was comfortable that it could meet both its international obligations and prioritise the UK border, I made a decision, and that is what was implemented.
Rather than denigrating refugees fleeing the despicable Iranian regime for not claiming asylum elsewhere, will the Home Secretary tell the House how many asylum seekers we have been able to return to other EU countries under the EU Dublin regulation in the last three years? Is he concerned that in the Brexit deal before the House there is no guarantee that the UK will retain that power?
The right hon. Gentleman should stop treating this as a political game; we are talking about people’s lives. This Government, as much as any other before them, care about those people’s lives. I have mentioned the aid we are providing in region, including the more than £2.7 billion—more than any other country—to help Syrian refugees, and our refugee resettlement programmes, which I know he supports. Under those, we resettled more refugees in 2017 than any other EU state. Rather than trying to score cheap political points, he should join us in trying to help these people.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and agree, as does the whole House, that our priority should be preventing these crossings in the first place. I welcome what he has said about the increase in surveillance, by air, on sea and on land in France. Nevertheless, this morning a vessel left France and landed in Dungeness, in my constituency, which, as he knows, is often a particularly treacherous part of the coast. What more needs to be done to prevent boats from slipping through the net? In this case, the vessel was detected by a local fishing craft, which alerted the authorities, and was not first spotted by the authorities themselves.
My hon. Friend refers to the events this morning in his constituency, and while I cannot say too much about that—it is an ongoing operation—he might know that an arrest has been made. He is absolutely right about doing more on detection, and that involves work with Border Force and the coastguard—now with the help of the Royal Navy—but also, very importantly, with the French authorities. Despite the news he has shared with us, we have seen a significant fall in the overall number of crossings in the last seven days. We cannot take too much from that, but we hope that the law enforcement and detection work being done is contributing to a reduction in the overall number of crossings.
I want to be clear that I agree about the need for clear border security, but what was lacking in the Secretary of State’s statement was actual figures. He talked about attempts, but how many people have actually arrived here and claimed asylum in the three-month period? If he does not have those figures to hand, will he put them in the Library of the House, along with the numbers of people who came by other routes in the same period?
I am happy to share some figures with the right hon. Gentleman. In 2018, 543 people made the attempt to cross the channel, and 42% of them—227 people—were intercepted, meaning that 316 arrived in the UK, most of them in the last three months of the year.
Most of my constituents would welcome a clampdown on illegal asylum seeking and would regard it as outrageous that somebody can come to this country and claim asylum having travelled through one, two, three or many more safe countries on the way. I for one, speaking on behalf of my constituents, would welcome the Government getting tough on this. Let us enforce the Dublin conventions and conduct joint maritime patrols with the French so that, when these people are caught mid-channel, they can be returned to French ports.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I think most of our constituents across the country would agree with him. He mentioned joint patrols. We are working with the French—that work has been stepped up in recent weeks—to see what more we can do together, and the new co-ordination centre is certainly helping.
Over Christmas, my colleague Assembly Member Leanne Wood was contacted by Robin Jenkins, a Welsh RNLI lifeboatman and a crew member on Sea Watch 3, which rescued 32 people, including women, children and a baby, off the coast of Malta on
First, may I take this opportunity to thank all the members of the RNLI for their work, especially in recent weeks, in response to the increase in the number of crossings? As we all know, they are incredibly courageous volunteers who put their lives at risk, and I want to put on the record our gratitude for all their work.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement, but will he explain what co-operation the UK is giving to our European partners, not just in France, but in Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta, which have borne a heavy responsibility for rescuing and providing safe haven to refugees? Can we hear more about that, please?
I am happy to share further details with my hon. Friend. We are helping our European friends in several ways with the huge increase in the number of refugees and asylum seekers since 2015. As part of Operation Poseidon in the Aegean, our Border Force vessels and crew have been called out on more than 700 missions and saved more than 15,000 lives. We are also working closely with our friends in Greece, having provided personnel, advice and funding, and we will continue to work with our friends in Europe to see what more we can do.
I want to say that the most terrible thing about the Home Secretary’s English channel photoshoot is his wilful misreading of decades of asylum legislation—legislation we were proud of in this country—but actually the most terrible thing is that nothing he has said today will stop the traffickers, which is what we all want. There are 1,500 people sleeping rough tonight around Dunkirk and Calais, 250 of them children and unaccompanied minors. Between them, they speak 28 different languages. They are not just from Iran, but fleeing persecution in Yemen, Ethiopia and other countries around the world. There have been 972 human rights abuses reported in Calais, 244 of them involving police violence. The Home Secretary says that he is there with the French police when they take disruptive measures, but they are pouring bleach into the tents of the refugees. If the Home Secretary cares about these people, as he says he does, he will spend less time on Twitter talking to the alt-right and more time in Calais, working out how we can deal with this humanitarian crisis now.
I am afraid I do not accept the picture of France that the hon. Lady has painted. France is a good partner and it is a perfectly safe country, as are many other European countries. The hon. Lady should think very carefully about the fact that she is indirectly encouraging people to get into small boats and cross the channel, which will put more lives at risk. She should think very carefully about what she is saying and what she is encouraging.
My right hon. Friend rightly described how dangerous the crossing is. What more is he doing to work with the authorities, not just in France but in other appropriate nations, to tackle the root cause of the problem so that these vulnerable people do not have to attempt the crossing in the first place?
I can tell my hon. Friend that much cross-governmental action is being taken, especially by the Department for International Development, to tackle some of the root causes of the increase in migration that we have been seen across Europe. Central to that is the help for Syria and, more broadly, the middle east and parts of north Africa. As I have said, the United Kingdom has provided nearly £3 billion of humanitarian funding, which makes it the largest single donor to the region. We are helping with infrastructure and education, and providing other types of humanitarian support to try to prevent people from undertaking these dangerous journeys and working with people smugglers in the first place.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. A happy new year to you.
The Home Secretary has not been shy in trying to make their mark over the Christmas recess. Before the announcement of this migration emergency, they made headlines by commenting on the Government’s intention of protecting the rights of persecuted Christians abroad. Many of those who are now taking to the boats and are in peril on the sea appear to be Christians from Iran. Does the Home Secretary see no contradiction between a commitment to protect those persecuted Christians abroad and telling them that there is no room at the inn in the UK?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has been listening to what I have said about the Government’s policy. We will continue to assess each application, but it is a widely accepted principle that those who are fleeing persecution should claim asylum in the first safe country in which they arrive.
Such is the desperation and commitment of some refugees that they are even crossing the North sea and landing in small boats in Lincolnshire, in both East Lindsey and Boston. I pay tribute to the work of Lincolnshire police and the Border Force in dealing with that difficult and largely unpopulated coast, but does the Home Secretary agree that we should look not only at the real hotspots that have arisen very recently, but at the east coast of England?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. As he will know—no doubt this is one of the reasons why he has rightly raised the issue—there was a landing on the coast of Lincolnshire in, I believe, December. That is being looked into closely, but he is right to say that we should look more widely than just the south-east coast.
This is a time of unprecedented global refugee crisis, and the vast majority of refugees end up in countries adjacent to their country of origin. Only a small minority come to this country. I agree with the Home Secretary that we want to protect and save lives, but will he please tell us how many border officers he has sent to Calais to process people who have a claim to family reunion, what he is doing to increase the number taken under the schemes for family resettlement—a safe and legal route that allows people to leave an overburdened country next to a country at war and come to this country—and what else he is doing to enable us to take our fair share of the world’s responsibility for this global refugee crisis?
As I am sure the hon. Lady will know, we do a great deal. This Government, and successive previous Governments, have done much to help refugees across the world. We have the vulnerable children’s and the vulnerable persons resettlement schemes, and we will work actively with our European partners to reunite families, particularly children. One of my first acts as Home Secretary last summer was to ensure that a new right to stay would be established for unaccompanied refugee children brought into the UK from Calais, to make it easier for them to do that. We will continue to meet our obligations on family reunion under the Dublin regulation.
Just a couple of months ago, alongside Canada and unlike many other countries, we were the first to help the former White Helmets who were facing certain death under Assad in Syria. We took more than 25 of them, along with their families—nearly 100 people—and gave them our protection, because that is in accordance with our values and the kind of country that we are.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s decisive action. Under the European Union’s Dublin regulation, asylum seekers should claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach. I think Members on both sides of the House agree that we want to deter people from making this dangerous journey. Is not the best way of doing that to ensure that people who are intercepted in the English channel return to the French shoreline where they embarked? That would remove the incentive to attempt the crossing in the first place.
We are working closely with our French friends in disrupting more of the boats to prevent them from setting out in the first place. When they are detected in French waters, they are returned to France. We are also working with France—using our own detection systems, which reach out into French waters—to establish whether we can return more. However, the safest option is not just to return boats but to concentrate on the criminal gangs that are feeding on these vulnerable people, and to ensure that no one sets out on this journey in the first place.
Is the Home Secretary aware of the United Kingdom’s obligations under the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees? Is he aware that there is no legal obligation for asylum seekers to seek asylum in the first safe country in which they arrive? That does not exist in the body of international law.
Would it not be a much better use of the Government’s resources to be engaged on the French mainland, looking after some of the terribly abandoned unaccompanied minors? We promised to take in 3,000. What resources are being devoted to disrupting the incentive to cross the channel in an unsafe way by processing those people on the French coast and understanding their needs?
We remain absolutely committed to the 1951 convention, and that will not change. The principle that I have set out today, which is widely established and accepted, is the “first safe country” principle. It is in the interests of those asylum seekers not to continue what might be a dangerous journey, and to seek asylum in the first safe country.
The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I was aware of the convention. I wonder whether he is aware of the UK’s own domestic laws and regulations of 2004, which represent the will of the House and which clearly underline the importance of claiming asylum in the first safe country.
My constituents would certainly want me to say that anyone coming to the UK illegally from a safe country such as France should be returned. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most compelling purposes of the “first safe country” principle is precisely to prevent people from being incentivised to undertake these dangerous crossings?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That goes to the heart of the issue, which is about protecting lives and protecting vulnerable people. If such people feel, for whatever reason—perhaps because they have been sold a false prospectus by people smugglers—that they cannot claim asylum in a safe country that they are in, they are ultimately the ones who will be hurt, and we must all do what we can to prevent that.
Does the Home Secretary not understand that it is precisely because these people are so desperate that they will take these risks and undertake these dangers to travel in boats to come to the UK? They are doing that precisely because the safe routes they ought to have have failed. Safety is relative, and I certainly feel safest when with my family; how many of the people picked up in these boats have family in the UK, and how quickly will the Home Secretary be able to process their applications?
The hon. Lady suggests that these people are not able to seek asylum in other safe countries. France, for example, is a perfectly safe country, and if these people are fleeing persecution it is to their advantage that they claim asylum in the first safe country they are in and are not encouraged to take dangerous journeys.
If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that these boat crossings are taking place because of UK Government spending, that is plainly ridiculous.
How successful did the Home Secretary find exploiting the acts of desperate and vulnerable refugees, misrepresenting conventions and stirring up hatred in pursuit of his own personal ambition to become the next leader of the Conservative party?
I have been to Calais and spoken to unaccompanied child refugees, and I have spoken to child refugees in Plymouth. They all want a better life, but this major incident has left many of them in fear. When refugee stories like this appear in the media, there is a real fear that will rise, and indeed hate does rise and violence towards refugees in our country rises. So will the Home Secretary make it absolutely clear that nobody, especially those on the right—the far right in particular—should use this incident to stir up hate and division in our communities and to seek to give even more fear and a tougher time to people who have suffered so much already?
Of course there is no room for hate in this country, whether of refugees or migrants or for any other reason. That is why it is even more important that we have the protection we offer. That is a very precious thing, and we must make the system as fair as possible and do all we can to discourage people, in this case, from taking these dangerous journeys and working with people smugglers. That is the whole intention of the policy the Government have set in place, and I hope the hon. Gentleman can support it.
Lang may yer lum reek, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The Home Secretary pointed out earlier that there are diverse reasons why people might be attempting this treacherous journey across the channel, yet he refuses to acknowledge that some of them might be trying to be reunited with their families. What progress has been made in supporting the family reunion Bill brought forward by my hon. Friend Angus Brendan MacNeil?
The Dublin regulation takes account of family reunion and the need for it to be considered in successful and pending asylum applications in European member states. We take part in that actively because we can see that need. That is another reason why someone in France who wants to come to the UK for family connections need not take that treacherous journey; there is a system within the Dublin regulation for family reunion.