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Home Secretary Sajid Javid is under increasing pressure to deal with the rising number of migrants crossing the Channel as he returns to the UK.
He has cut short his family Christmas break, but insisted there was “no one easy answer” as what he called a “major incident” unfolds off the south coast.
Labour said the government had “failed to get a grip” and one Tory MP said there had been a “lack of leadership”.
More than 220 people have attempted the crossing in small boats since November.
Mr Javid is arriving back home on Sunday and immigration minister Caroline Nokes said he would be at his desk on New Year’s Eve, adding he was “taking control of the situation” and that she had been “in regular contact” with him.
He said it was of “grave concern” that people have been attempting to make the dangerous journey, the most recent being 12 men who were detained off the coast of Dover on Friday.
Some MPs have called for more vessels to be deployed in the Channel, but Mr Javid said it was “vital we strike a balance between protecting [migrants] and protecting our borders”.
Only one of the Border Force’s fleet of five cutters – specialist boats which the force describes as being capable of rescuing several migrant boats at the same time – is currently operational in the Dover Strait.
The home secretary said he wanted to avoid encouraging more people to take the risk of attempting the crossing and was keeping the number of cutters “under close review”.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said the armed forces were ready to offer help if needed, telling the Sunday Telegraph: “We have not had any requests as yet but if the Home Office is in need of armed forces support then our navy, air force and army stand ready to assist.”
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, writing in the Sunday Mirror, said: “He has still to explain exactly how the government plans to handle these mass criminal operations in British waters.
“The Home Office’s flawed strategy has been to focus on deterring refugees, thinking that the issues in the Mediterranean would never reach our shores.
“While the Tories wax lyrical about control of our borders and being tough on security, they cannot seem to get a grip on criminal smugglers operating on a few hundred miles of coastline, in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.”
‘We are dealing with human beings’
Rehman Chishti, Tory MP for Gillingham and Rainham, told the Sunday Telegraph there had been a “lack of leadership to get a grip on the issue”, adding: “What we have got is unsatisfactory and somebody has to do something.”
British and French authorities have both said the rise in crossings is the result of “organised criminality” and “mafia networks”.
Mr Javid, who declared the situation a major incident on Friday, was due to talk to his French counterpart about the situation over the weekend.
The Church of England has called for more compassion over the issue. The Right Rev Trevor Willmott, Bishop of Dover, told the Guardian: “It is crucial that we all remember that we are dealing with human beings here.
“Across the nation, we have been celebrating the season of hope and goodwill as we remember Christ’s birth – let’s not forget so soon that every person is precious.”
The people found off the Kent coast since November:
- 28 December – Twelve migrants in two separate boats detained off the coast of Dover
- 27 December – Some 23 migrants, including three children, were detained in Kent after crossing the channel in small three boats
- 26 December – Three migrants brought ashore by Border Force
- 25 December – Forty migrants, including two children, crossed the Channel in five boats
- 15 December – Four children are among a group of 11 people rescued off Dover. Eight said they were Iraqi and the other three claimed to be Iranian
- 12 December – Six men found in a dinghy off the coast of Dover
- 11 December – Six people, thought to be from Iran were rescued from a small boat off the Kent coast. A second boat with eight men, all saying they were Iranian were picked up later the same day off Dover
- 4 December – Two men were brought to shore at Dover
- 27 November – An 18-month-old baby was among nine people rescued from a dinghy off Dover
- 23 November – Eight men located in a dinghy off the coast of Dover
- 22 November – Thirteen men and one woman were intercepted in two dinghies off the coast of Dover
- 18 November – Nine suspected migrants were found clambering up rocks in Folkestone after apparently crossing the English Channel in a small boat
- 16 November – Seven suspected migrants were found off Samphire Hoe, near Dover
- 14 November – Nine suspected migrants – seven men, one woman and a toddler – were found off the Kent coast. Another 10 were found near Dover Docks and five men were found several miles of Ramsgate
- 13 November – Fourteen men and three children entered Port of Dover on a French fishing boat believed to be stolen
- 9 November -Seven men were found in the English Channel off Dover
- 3 November – Eight suspected migrants were stopped off the Kent coast and seven others were stopped at Dover Western Docks