It is a matter of luck that no one attempting the perilous journey across the Channel has yet lost a life – at least the ones we know about. It is also a matter of luck that those picked up so far appear to fit the economic migrant description or possibly in some cases credible asylum candidates – again at least the ones we know about.
What we don’t know about is those we don’t know about who may have reached our shores undetected and who may present much more of a danger. The security services identified at least 800 UK nationals who may be seeking to make their way back home from Syria and Iraq after fighting with Jihadi forces. One such was apparently recently arrested at Luton airport, others are less likely to be using such conventional and transparent means of entry, anywhere along our 7000 mile coastline.
Elsewhere 4 Nigerian criminals were apprehended by Special Forces trying to divert a cargo ship to land them in British waters. It is unlikely that they were heading to Britain to become model taxpaying citizens. Fortunately they were stopped, but only after a serious intervention by special services. That is why it was right for the Home Secretary to declare the present situation a ‘major incident’ but so far the lack of urgency, detail and leadership has not reflected that emergency status. It has been clear to the Home Affairs Select Committee for a while now that the Home Office has badly underplayed the extent of the problem, overstretched by the Windrush scandal and falling behind on preparations for Brexit, deal or no deal. Their resources have been concentrated elsewhere and away from the current security of our borders.
There are three urgent measures that need to be taken now, not put on the agenda for some cross-border ministerial photo call at some stage in the New Year. Along with other members of the Home Affairs Select Committee I have been warning for some time that the Border Force presence in the Channel needs seriously beefing up. Currently we have 5 cutters to defend our coastline yet 2 of them are currently on deployment in the Mediterranean and Aegean. One apparently is on route and another in dock meaning only one is actively patrolling the Channel.
Contrast that with the Italian coastguard, which has no fewer than 600 cutters, and the Spanish 150. We need to acknowledge that our capability is desperately understrength and deploy a realistic amount of assets. Until we can the Home Office needs to call on the Royal Navy and other military support to boost our capability to detect and intercept migrant boats. Sussex Police may want to lend some of their drones as well now they are not acting as ‘decoys’ at Gatwick Airport.
Secondly, we must secure much more strenuous efforts from the French and other Channel countries from where these perilous journeys begin. During the last visit of the Select Committee to the Calais ‘Jungle’ the police openly pointed out where some of the people traffickers were actually living in town. One BBC news report before Christmas even interviewed an Iranian trafficker who made little effort to disguise his identity in broad daylight.
The ‘Jungle’ has been demolished but the traffickers have not. Yet I see scant evidence that the French authorities are working to disrupt their activities let alone taking them out of circulation altogether preventing them from plying their deadly trade. This is organised crime pure and simple, buying or stealing available and often woefully inadequate boats on a blatant scale. This is not primarily about DIY migrants taking their chances on pleasure crafts.
It is true that a minority of the migrants rescued in the Channel have been picked up by French patrols but much more needs to be done to stop them getting into the water in the first place. This is becoming a serious problem all along the northern European coast, not just in France but also in Belgium, with the crisis threatening to spread further north to Holland too. The Border Force, Eurotunnel and other private companies have invested heavily and successfully on French soil in securing the Tunnel and ferry terminals from stowaways. We urgently need better joint working with continental authorities in closing down this backdoor route.
At the moment, traffickers are warning migrants to get on with it as after Brexit, British borders will be harder to penetrate. We must be more rigorous at making sure would-be migrants know they are not going to get an easy ride and if they reach the UK illegally there is little prospect of remaining here. .According to the terms of the Dublin Convention, each migrant should be assessed and dealt with in the EU country where they first arrived. The trouble is that many came in through Greece or Italy without being registered and then headed north meaning the responsibility becomes France's. We should waste no time in shipping these migrants straight back across the water to where they started their journey to be handed over to authorities there to take care of their welfare and determine their status rather than try to make it our problem. Are France and Belgium really so dangerous that genuine asylum seekers escaping war zones could not expect a fair hearing and treatment that side of the Channel? For those who have a genuine claim to come to the UK of course we will continue to step up to the mark and offer safe haven through legitimate channels. Once they realise that the risky sea crossing was in vain, and the fees paid to traffickers were all for nothing, Britain will no longer look like such an attractive risk... and importantly a looming humanitarian disaster will be averted.