Boris Johnson has turned his back on pleas to provide safe routes for refugees to reach Britain from continental Europe, following the tragic deaths of 27 people attempting the perilous crossing of the English Channel by inflatable dinghy.
Campaigners accused the government of being “complicit with the people-smugglers” by relying on security measures which force migrants into ever more dangerous routes to reach the UK.
And a Tory peer and former senior adviser to the Foreign Office branded the UK’s approach to the small boats crisis “shameful”, saying the migrants were being treated as “nameless zombies” rather than “people like you and me”.
French authorities said that 17 men, seven women and three children – mostly Kurds from Iran and Iraq – died in Wednesday’s disaster, which rescuers were told was caused by their flimsy craft being struck by a container ship. One of the women who died was pregnant.
Home secretary Priti Patel told the House of Commons that “in terms of toughness… I have not ruled anything out” in her efforts to stem the growing flow of people crossing the Channel in small boats, which has surged to 25,776 so far in 2021, three times its level last year and more than ten times the 1,835 recorded in 2019.
Ms Patel confirmed that she has authorised Border Force officers to use “push back” tactics to drive boats back towards France, and was continuing to explore the idea of “offshoring” the processing of asylum applications despite her failure so far to find a third country willing to house refugees outside the UK.
In a phone call with French interior minister Gerald Darmanin, she made an offer of plain-clothes UK police or border officials to take part in joint patrols around the beaches used by people-traffickers to launch overcrowded boats.
Operating without a warrant, officers would be able to assist with surveillance and tracking, but would have no powers of arrest, in order to get round Paris’s objections on sovereignty grounds to uniformed British agents being deployed on French soil.
Ms Patel, who will travel to France on Sunday for an emergency summit of European nations called by president Emmanuel Macron, also offered assistance with technology including automatic numberplate recognition and sensors to be installed on the remote roads and dirt tracks used by smugglers to avoid detection as they deliver their human cargo to the coast.
Mr Macron has warned the prime minister not to “exploit a tragic situation for political ends” after Mr Johnson complained in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s horror that France had not done enough to crack down on gangs who were “getting away with murder”.
But the president later said he was asking for “extra help” from the UK and hoped to “better integrate” cross-Channel operations against smuggling networks.
A senior UK source told The Independent that the tragedy appeared to have triggered an acceptance in Paris that a shift in strategy is needed. British officials and law enforcement were travelling to France on Thursday evening to meet with their counterparts.
The Commons heard calls from Tory MPs for the suspension of the Human Rights Act, offshore processing of asylum claims and physical interventions to turn back boats in the Channel.
Former minister Sir John Hayes said: “People who voted to take back control have every right to ask the question: If you can’t protect the integrity of the borders, what can you control?”
But humanitarian organisations said that the tragedy should be a spur for the government to move away from its punitive deterrence approach, and to ditch elements of Ms Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill which would criminalise people fleeing persecution and give UK personnel immunity for breaching duties under International law to rescue those in distress at sea.
“The deaths of 27 men, women and children trying to cross the English Channel are a tragic reminder that harsh migration policies do not work,” said Sophie McCann of Medecins Sans Frontieres.
“Measures in this Bill are harmful, cruel and discriminatory. It will further push people into the hands of smugglers and could have irreversible and fatal consequences for people fleeing persecution and violence, as well as undermining basic human rights and contravening the UK’s legal obligations.”
Zoe Gardner of the Joint Council for Welfare of Immigrants said the disaster should mark a “point of change” for the government.
“When we try to close down routes for people to seek asylum, all we do is lose control of the situation and hand it over to the smugglers,” she said. “This government, this new bill that’s in front of Parliament right now, is complicit with the smugglers who are bringing people across the Channel.
“Now is the time for the government to stop, turn around, completely change their approach, get their head out of the sand and give people ways to travel to the UK for the purpose of seeking asylum safely.”
Amnesty International UK’s migrant rights director Steve Valdez-Symonds said the perilous Channel crossings were happening “because the Government provides no safe alternative”.
And Tory peer Arminka Helic, who served as then foreign secretary William Hague’s special adviser after fleeing the 1990s war in Bosnia, said the approach of both London and Paris was “shameful”.
“Don’t think of these people as these nameless zombies that are crossing different countries,” she told Times Radio. “They at some point had a home and their children went to school, they had a street that they lived in, they had friends and relatives, they probably played football just like you do.
“They’re people just like us. Think of them as another human being and think of yourself as being lucky to have been born in this country because it could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any one of us.”
Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson said the prime minister believed that establishing safe routes for migrants to reach the UK from northern France would simply increase the “pull factor” attracting them to the Channel.
And a government source told The Independent: “It would be completing the smugglers’ job for them, telling them ‘You go ahead and take the money and we’ll look after the most difficult part of the trip for you’.”
Labour challenged Ms Patel to reopen the Dubs Scheme for resettling unaccompanied child migrants, which was closed in 2017 after helping only 480 of the promised 3,000 children. And shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds pointed to statistics published on Thursday showing that a new scheme intended to resettle 5,000 people a year had so far helped just 770.
Ms Patel also came under pressure to name a date for the commencement of an operation to resettle 20,000 Afghans, announced in August as the Taliban took over the country but yet to assist a single vulnerable person.
She told the Commons that there was no “silver bullet” solution to the problem, which would take a “Herculean effort” involving “addressing long-term pull factors, smashing the criminal gangs that treat human beings as cargo and tackling supply chains”.