France lashed out at UK ‘blackmail’ today and warned Priti Patel against ‘pushing back’ overloaded migrant boats in the Channel.
Amid growing alarm at the scale of the problem, the Home Secretary has ordered officials to reinterpret maritime laws so boats can be turned around as they try to cross the Channel.
However, experts said the plan is ‘not going to happen’ because overloaded dinghies might sink, and France has already warned the step would have a ‘negative impact’ on cooperation.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said this morning: ‘France will not accept any practice that goes against maritime law, and will not accept any financial blackmail.’
Lucy Moreton, professional officer at the Immigration Services Union, said she would be surprised if the tactic is used ‘even once’ because the boats are ‘vulnerable’.
And Tory MP Tim Loughton, a member of the home affairs select committee, said it was ‘not going to happen’ as the vessels would capsize and migrants might drown.
As the wrangling continues over how to tackle the volume of desperate people trying to get to the UK, it has also emerged that Britain has offered use of a plane to help monitor the coast, but France has yet to decide whether to accept.
Some 14,000 migrants are now thought to have arrived in Britain via the Channel this year – with demands for Paris to ‘step up to the plate’ and prevent the crossings.
Health minister Helen Whately insisted this morning that the focus was still on discouraging migrants from attempting the journey, rather than turning them back en route.
Asked repeatedly whether the Government was looking push boats back to France, she said: ‘The Government looks at all the options, but a really important thing, of course, is you wouldn’t want to put people in any greater danger, they’re taking a dangerous journey as it is, and what we want to do is actually deter them from starting that journey in the first place.’
Yesterday saw UK authorities rescue or intercept 301 people with the French reporting they had stopped 302 people reaching Britain, the Home Office said.
The previous day, 456 were rescued by Britain, and 326 by France.
Grilled on the situation at PMQs yesterday Boris Johnson admitted that the government is reliant on the French, but insisted ministers will use ‘every possible tactic’ to ease the problems.
It comes following a G7 interior minister’s meeting yesterday during which Ms Patel told her French counterpart the British public ‘expect to see results’ from French efforts to prevent ongoing migrant crossings.
A group of people thought to be migrants are brought ashore from the local lifeboat at Dungeness in Kent, September 7
Priti Patel holding talks with French counterpart Gerald Darmanin last night. She has sanctioned new ‘pushback’ tactics to stop migrant boats in the Channel and turn them back to France amid crunch talks over crossings
A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, aboard a Border Force vessel following a small boat incident in the Channel. Picture date: Wednesday September 8
A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, following a small boat incident in the Channel on September 8
Members of Border Force are being given special training to handle migrant boats, but would only deploy the ‘pushback’ tactics when deemed practical and safe to do so.
Reports suggested such operations were likely to be restricted to sturdier, bigger migrant boats and only used in ‘very limited circumstances’.
Ms Moreton told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘In practical terms, if this happens even once, I would be surprised.
‘There are understandably a lot of constraints around it and you cannot do this with a vessel that is in any way vulnerable and more importantly you need the consent of the French to do it.
‘Because when you turn the vessel back toward France, when it is across the median line it has to be intercepted and rescued by the French and it appears the French will simply not engage with this, in which case it’s – if you excuse the pun – dead in the water.’
Tory MP Tim Loughton, a member of the home affairs select committee, said he supported the principle but it was ‘not going to happen’.
He said: ‘It sounds good. But I’m afraid in practice it’s just not going to happen. These are flimsy boats coming over. Even those that are tougher are completely weighed down.
‘Any boat coming up alongside at speed would capsize most of these boats anyway and then we’re looking at people getting into trouble in the water and drowning … and then we’ll get blamed for that. It sounds good pushing them back but it’s not going to work in practice.’
Ms Patel and the French interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, held discussions on crossings at Lancaster House in London, in the wake of hundreds of migrants being brought ashore in Kent over the past few days.
Government sources said the pair had a ‘constructive’ meeting in which Ms Patel made clear tackling the number of people making their way from France to the UK on small boats was her ‘number one priority’.
But the French Government said the turnaround tactics would have ‘a negative impact on our co-operation’.
Migrants in Kent after making the journey yesterday amid a growing row between Priti Patel and France over the crossings
Pictured: A graph showing the number of migrants crossing the Channel on small boats since 2019. The figure has increased each year
In a letter sent before the meeting, Mr Darmanin rejected a UK request to set up a joint command centre in northern France, with police and border force officers from both countries patrolling the coastline and the Channel.
He said he had ‘taken note’ of the offer of a British plane to monitor the coastline, but suggested it would be up to the EU’s Frontex border agency.
It comes just days after Ms Patel is said to have told MPs she is prepared to withhold millions of pounds of cash promised to France to help step up patrols unless an improvement in the number of migrants intercepted by French authorities is seen.
A Government source said: ‘The Home Secretary was clear with the French interior minister that the British public expect to see results.’.
According to the Home Office, 785 migrants arrived in the UK on Monday after making the journey from France in small boats, with several young children and a baby among them.
This is the second highest daily total of the year, following the single-day record of 828 people set last month.
The crossings continued on Tuesday and Wednesday during the better weather conditions, with boats arriving at Dover and others being towed on to beaches along the south coast.
Earlier this year, the UK and France announced an agreement to more than double the number of police patrolling French beaches.
It was the second pledge of its kind in a year, in a bid to stop small boats from leaving France.
As part of the deal, the Government pledged to give France £54 million to support its efforts to stop small boat crossings.
Charities urged the Home Office to take a ‘more humane and responsible approach’ towards asylum seekers and said humanitarian visas were needed to help ‘prevent the chaos of the Channel crossings’.