Comment

Will the Channel crossings ever end?

The Prime Minister must have the guts to stand up to the French and stop them treating Britain as a dumping ground

A friend with whom I have been working recently to expose illegal immigrant crossings in the Channel had an off the record chat with a senior Border Force official last week. During this conversation, he was told that the private view of Border Force officers at Dover is that these crossings will continue for years to come.  

As Britain negotiates with the EU to establish the final shape of our post-transition relationship, action is urgently required to decide how the UK and France are going to tackle this problem. It is utterly unrealistic for things to carry on like this. Only an irresponsible government would pretend otherwise.  

This week I was back in the Channel for the first time in a couple of months and pleased to be accompanied by a journalist from the Daily Telegraph. Despite a lot of mainstream media coverage in August of the sheer volume of crossings taking place, it has felt more recently as though this story has rather dropped off the agenda. It turns out this has been a mistake on the media’s part, for while its back has been turned, the French Navy has adopted new methods which are, ultimately, nothing short of chilling.

When, in May, I first exposed the practice of “the handover”, in which the French escort immigrants to British waters and then ensure the UK Border Force has taken over the situation, I could hear both parties talking to each over the radio, working in close co-operation to ensure that no lives were lost. Although this was in itself outrageous because Britain has paid France £100m to stop the boats from coming, there was at least a sense of collaboration.

What I saw on Wednesday was something quite different. A group of 16 immigrants had been crammed onto a tiny boat in France by a trafficking gang. The boat was escorted by the French to British waters and then simply left there, taking on water. As the French vessel turned around to head back to France, the wind was getting up and the immigrants’ boat looked increasingly perilous. There was no thought for the safety of those on board and the idea that the French lifted a finger to prevent it from reaching Britain is laughable.

Having witnessed this episode, it is clear to me that that there has been a complete breakdown in trust between our two countries. As the Brexit transition process comes to an end, this has serious implications. One of the biggest problems now openly acknowledged by the Home Secretary Priti Patel is the EU’s Dublin regulations. Under these rules, if an illegal immigrant who has passed through any European country without lodging an asylum claim there then crosses the Channel successfully, Britain is unable to send them back to France.  

We are told that all is well because the Immigration, Nationality and Asylum (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 legislation revokes the Dublin regulations from the UK’s perspective. If only it were that simple. The questions to which every Briton deserves an answer are: what will replace the Dublin regulations; and how are those negotiations going? Tony Smith, the former head of UK Border Force, has said repeatedly that a new agreement with France must be drawn up so that an end can be put to this illegal and dangerous trade. He is right, of course, but for this to happen the French must be willing to engage in the process.

Chris Philp, the immigration minister, has had a series of meetings with French politicians and has told the House of Commons on several occasions of the great effort the French authorities are making to stop, and even turn around, immigrant boats. I’m afraid I simply don’t believe this. From what I saw yesterday, the immigrant boat was left deliberately into UK waters by a French vessel that had its identification system turned off. I don’t believe the French even told the UK authorities about it. 

The fact is, relations have broken down and the French do not seem keen on reaching any new agreement. I know why. By virtue of being members of the Schengen Area, they are unable to stop people coming through their borders. Any new arrangement that would allow the UK to return the dinghies to Calais is of no interest to the French. France is more than happy to use Britain as a dumping ground. 

Boris Johnson faces a tough choice. Either he continues to allow thousands of people – mostly young men about whom we know nothing - to keep coming, or he delivers an ultimatum to France that Britain will return all illegal entrants from 1 January. It is clear from the comments of the senior Border Force official referred to above that few people have any faith in Johnson having the guts to do the right thing. I do hope he’s wrong.