Home Secretary Sajid Javid is cutting short a Christmas break to return to the UK to tackle a wave of attempts by migrants to cross the English Channel by boat.
On Friday, Mr Javid declared the situation a “major incident”, appointing a “gold commander” to oversee the situation and give daily updates.
But there were calls from MPs for the Royal Navy to be sent in or for Border Force cutters to be brought back from the Mediterranean to target traffickers’ boats.
Two boats carrying 12 men from Syria and Iran were brought to shore on Friday, just days after 40 migrants attempted the crossing on Christmas Day.
Immigration minister Caroline Nokes revealed Mr Javid’s plan to take personal control of the situation as she visited Dover to speak with Border Force officials on Saturday.
“I can’t comment on his whereabouts for security reasons, but he is on his way back and he will be at his desk on Monday,” she said.”He is taking control of the situation and I am in regular contact with him, and we had a conference call just yesterday.”
Mr Javid has been briefed on the latest intelligence in a conference call with officials in the Border Force, Immigration Enforcement and the National Crime Agency (NCA), and has also asked for an urgent call with his French counterpart.
A union representing Border Force staff said it was “very difficult to know” how much the French authorities are doing to prevent people-smuggling from the camps housing migrants in Calais.
“We are being told that those touting for these crossings are absolutely open about it,” Lucy Moreton of the Immigration Services Union told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “They are around and about in the camps, they are in the cafes in those areas of Calais. They are very clear, very open, touting for crossings that night.
“If it’s that obvious to journalists and staff in those areas, then presumably it is obvious to the French authorities too.”
Ms Moreton said that the two cutters available to Border Force staff patrolling the English Channel were “woefully inadequate” but that adding to their numbers would take a considerable time.
John Woodcock, a member of the House Commons Home Affairs Committee, told The Sun: “The public is losing confidence in the struggling Border Force. It’s time to stop the rot by sending in the Royal Navy.
“If the civilian force can’t cope, the Navy must stop this crisis becoming a catastrophe.”
Mr Elphicke said it would be better to bring Border Force cutters back from the Mediterranean, where they are taking part in search-and-rescue operations.
“Border Force officials are trained to protect borders rather more than the Royal Navy,” the Dover MP told Sky News. “The Navy are very important and very good, but they do other things and border protection is not their key thing.”
But Ms Nokes told reporters: “It is feasible that were we to put additional craft (out) they might act as a magnet – encouraging people to make a perilous crossing.
“What we want to make sure is that we continue to work with the French so that people are prevented from leaving beaches in northern France; to make sure we are providing joint operations both in terms of intelligence (and) policing; and indeed when people are out on the water assisting the French response.”
She rejected suggestions that not enough is being done to tackle smugglers, saying there was an “enormous intelligence-led operation to make sure that arrests are made in France”.
But she added: “Where people’s lives are at risk, people are rescued where necessary.”
Mr Elphicke told the Press Association the Home Office needed to ensure there are enough cutters, provide more investment in border security and put more pressure on the French to work hard to stop the traffickers.
He dismissed suggestions that patrol boats might act as a magnet, saying he did not accept they would be “anything other than a deterrent”.
“Everyone knows that the rescues are being done by the RNLI, who are volunteers and going out over the Christmas period making sure people are not at harm on the high seas,” said Mr Elphicke.
A spokeswoman for the French Maritime Prefecture, Ingrid Parrot, said the number of illicit crossings in small boats had increased from 23 in 2016 and 13 in 2017 to 70 this year, the majority of them after the end of October.
Ms Parrot told Today: “Before 2018, we didn’t have smugglers. But now we have smugglers on the French coast and it is really a network.
“Before that it was not a network, it was individual migrants who were trying to cross. Now it’s a network, a criminal organisation.”
Ms Parrot said smugglers are using the prospect of Brexit as a way to try to encourage migrants to attempt the perilous crossing before the impending change in UK relations with the EU.
“Dozens” of attempted crossings have been foiled and three suspected people smugglers are due to stand trial in the New Year after being arrested and charged in France, the National Crime Agency said in a statement on Saturday night.
But Chris Hogben, the head of the NCA-led Invigor organised immigration crime task force, also warned more attempted crossings were “likely”.