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Minister to discuss migrant crisis with Channel border officers

Caroline Nokes’s visit to Dover comes after Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared the spate of attempts to reach the UK by boat a ‘major incident’.

A Border Force patrol boat arrives in the Port of Dover (Gareth Fuller/PA)
A Border Force patrol boat arrives in the Port of Dover (Gareth Fuller/PA)

The Government’s immigration minister is to visit Dover on Saturday after Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared the rising number of migrants attempting to cross the English Channel a “major incident”.

Caroline Nokes will be joined by the Kent port’s MP Charlie Elphicke, who has called for more patrol boats in the Channel to tackle trafficking gangs.

But there were calls for the Royal Navy to be sent in, with one MP warning that the crisis could otherwise escalate into a “catastrophe”.

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(PA Graphics)

Mr Javid has asked for an urgent call with his French counterpart to address the problem following a Christmas period which has seen a spate of attempts by migrants to cross to the UK by boat.

After two boats carrying 12 men from Syria and Iran were intercepted while they attempted to make the crossing on Friday, Mr Javid also appointed a “gold commander” to oversee the situation and give daily updates.

He has also held a conference call with officials in the Border Force, Immigration Enforcement and the National Crime Agency (NCA) – where he was briefed on the latest intelligence and action being taken.

Mr Javid has also asked the Border Force to provide information on whether more vessels will act as a deterrent or encourage more people to make the crossing.

Independent MP and Commons Home Affairs Committee member John Woodcock said he should go further, telling 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.”

And another committee member, Tory Tim Loughton told the paper: “There is a serious security implication, as this is a likely route undesirables who have been fighting in Syria will use if they want to return to the UK.

“Of course there is now a case for the Royal Navy to be brought in to do border protection in the Channel.”

On Friday, Border Force officials brought the 12 men to shore at Dover and handed them over to immigration officials to be interviewed.

An inflatable boat, carrying one Syrian and three Iranians, was reported to the Coastguard at around 3am. And at around 9am a second boat, which was carrying eight Iranians, was also spotted.

On Christmas Day, more than 40 migrants tried to cross the sea and enter the UK.

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Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes is to discuss the situation with Border Force officials (Nick Ansell/PA)

Boxing Day saw three more migrants intercepted in a small boat, and on Thursday an inflatable boat carrying nine people was rescued by a lifeboat crew three miles off the coast of Sandgate in Kent.

Ms Nokes and Mr Elphicke are to discuss the situation with Border Force officers in Dover.

Mr Elphicke said: “Now we need a clear strategy to defeat the traffickers. Let’s start by bringing back our cutters to the English Channel.”

He called on the French authorities to “match the Home Secretary’s determination” by stepping up action on their side of the English Channel to stop trafficking networks and prevent people attempting dangerous crossings.

Ingrid Parrot, spokeswoman for the French Maritime Prefecture for the English Channel, 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 BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “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. Crossings had been “easier” since the end of October because of the mild weather, she said.

She said French authorities exchange “a lot of information” with UK counterparts about smuggling operations, adding: “When migrants call us, we call MRCC (Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre) at Dover and Border Force to co-operate at sea to help these people, because we really fear finding bodies on the beach.”

Lucy Moreton, a spokeswoman for the Immigration Services Union, said Border Force staff feel they do not have the resources needed to deal with the problem.

“We do only have two cutters – that’s woefully inadequate, but we can’t just walk into a big ship shop and buy another one,” Ms Moreton told Today.

“The cutters that we’ve got – the youngest is 14 years old – we do need new ones but they will take time to build.”

Ms Moreton said the immediate priority is to “disrupt the criminality” of smuggling gangs arranging crossings, but said it is “very difficult to know” how much the French authorities are doing.

“We are being told that those touting for these crossings are absolutely open about it,” she said. “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 there is “a level of co-operation” when migrants are at sea, with efforts to return them to the French shore unless they have made it more than 12 miles from the coast, in which case they are taken to the UK.

“These individuals are paying a lot of money to cross,” she said. “The vessels are not suitable, they are too small, but they are better than the vessels being used in the Med. They are often also buying lifejackets to go with it.

“That doesn’t make it safe by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a very different scenario to the individuals crossing the Med.”

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