French authorities are failing to turn back illegal migrant boats even when they are just 250 yards from their shore, says Priti Patel, as she criticised their lack of action.
The Home Secretary disclosed that she had had “difficult” conversations with the French who were refusing to intercept the boats even in their own waters despite a UK Government assessment that it was legal under maritime law to return them to France.
She told MPs on the home affairs committee said Britain had offered to work with the French on joint exercises at sea to see how the boats could be returned to France safely when the migrants might resist.
She revealed Border Force officers had already conducted its own exercises at sea with the Navy to develop ways of picking up boats and returning them to France. Among measures being trialled are nets that the military deploy to clog propellers and bring the boats to a standstill.
“That’s the dialogue we are entering into with [the French] to get them to work with us and show willing,” she said. “To end this route, we have to intercept boats at sea and return them to France.”
It came as another 90 migrants were believed to have crossed the Channel yesterday, following a record 200 on Sunday, bringing the total this year to more than 2,600, compared with 1,892 for the whole of last year.
Ms Patel said the numbers of migrants risking their lives to cross the Channel was “shocking, appalling and unacceptably high,” but she said that it was “incredibly problematic” to stop it – a fact that “you can’t sugarcoat.”
She told the MPs: “We are fundamentally looking at changing ways of working with France. I’ve had some very, very difficult discussions with my French counterpart, even looking at interceptions at sea, because currently the French authorities are not intercepting boats at sea.
“And by that I mean boats that are just 250 yards away from the French coast. I feel there could be stronger enforcement measures on the French side and they have heard that from me.
“We want to break this route, we want to make this route unviable, and in my view the only way we can do this is by intercepting and returning the boats back to France.”
Asked by the committee if French authorities have powers to intercept boats in French waters, because officials there claimed they do not, she said: “That’s absolutely right and that is what we are working to achieve, right down to sharing legal advice, legal guidance in terms of maritime laws.
“A lot of this is governed by maritime laws and the French authorities’ interpretations of what they can and can’t do at sea.
“It is our advice that they can go ahead and do that. That has been part of the discussions that we have been having with the French authorities throughout the entire coronavirus crisis.”
Asked whether the “disagreement” over maritime laws is the basis of the problem as well as the terms of the Cherbourg agreement – which the committee heard is an informal agreement to intercept crossings at sea and repatriate boats back to France – she replied: “That is absolutely right.”
Ms Patel said the agreement has been “inappropriately” described by colleagues as a “gentleman’s agreement” but added: “These agreements are here to stand the test of time and to be operationalised.”
She said she had been “making the point repeatedly to French counterparts”, claiming the UK has offered to work with authorities at sea in joint exercises to demonstrate how boats can be returned safely. She added: “It is equally important, along with maritime law, that we actually prevent loss of life at sea.”
Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent in the last 10 years by her predecessors and on bilateral arrangements, Ms Patel said, adding that she wants to see more data and intelligence-sharing but suggested UK systems are “slightly more agile” than those on the Continent.
“In France, the system is not geared up to work in that way – that is part of the challenge that we have,” she said.
Her comments come just days after she hailed a “new operational approach” to dealing with crossings after meeting French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and agreeing to set up a Franco-British intelligence cell.