Author: CHRIS HOBBS, BORDER SECURITY EXPERT FOR THE DAILY MAIL
Home Secretary Sajid Javid is coming under increasing political pressure to get a grip on the recent surge in migrant boats crossing the English Channel.
As ever-greater numbers of people – mostly Iranian – reach our shores, the public want action to protect the integrity of our borders.
But so far the response from Mr Javid has not appeared particularly impressive. He was keen to convey that he’d taken personal charge of the crisis when he was actually 6,000 miles away on holiday in South Africa.
Moreover, despite his declaration of a ‘major incident’ in the Channel, he reportedly turned down an offer of assistance from the Royal Navy, which had 1,000 personnel on standby, as well as helicopters and a Type 23 frigate.
He then is said to have warned that the use of more Border Force patrols might actually worsen the problem – by feeding the belief that Britain provides a quasi-ferry service for migrant boats.
On his return from his safari holiday, he executed a sudden U-turn by ordering two Border Force cutters to return to home waters from the Mediterranean, where they have been helping with European anti-trafficking operations.
Yet, as a former police officer who spent much of my career in border enforcement, I have to say that I feel a large degree of sympathy for the Home Secretary.
It would be profoundly unfair to heap all the blame on him for the present mess. The reality is that Sajid Javid inherited a toxic legacy when he took over the Home Office last summer because the Border Force simply does not have the capacity to do its job properly.
That is glaringly obvious when it comes to our territorial waters, where the Force has a total of just five cutters to cover 7,723 miles of coastline, whereas Italy has around 600 patrol boats to combat migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean.
The situation is even more stark in the English Channel, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, where just one cutter has been operating recently – and even that has reportedly been in dock in Ramsgate since Saturday.
It is little wonder that people smugglers and organised crime networks sense they have little to fear from the grossly overstretched British agencies. Every new picture of a boatload of migrants being ushered ashore in Kent reinforces the impression that Britain is a soft touch.
An immigration free-for-all cannot be allowed to develop further, especially not in the Channel.
For a start, further impotence on the part of the authorities would dramatically escalate the crisis, making a humanitarian tragedy inevitable.
Indeed, without a crackdown, the traffickers would spread their theatre of operations beyond the Kent coast, using bigger vessels to reach Sussex, Hampshire, East Anglia and even Lincolnshire. So, robust action is needed.
In practice, that means beefing up the Border Force through more patrol boats, more staff and more resources to tackle the organised gangs.
An increase in the number of UK law enforcement vessels could lead to the adoption of a vigorous, maritime ‘stop, board and search’ policy in our territorial waters and even further afield, if there were agreements with other countries like France and Belgium.
To be fair, the Home Office has made some recent effort in this direction with the acquisition of six new coastal patrol vessels, which are smaller than cutters and cannot operate on the high seas, but will nevertheless be useful for interception around our shores.
The Home Office is also examining the purchase of maritime radars and drones, though these will need high degrees of expertise if they are to be used efficiently.
But any increase in the Border Force’s capability will achieve nothing without a radical change in strategy.
At present, the enforcement patrols – along with Royal National Lifeboat Institution vessels which have also been deployed – tend to pick up the migrants from their boats, then bring them back to England.
Far from acting as a kind of deterrent, this approach is actually an incentive for more illegal migration because the British appear to be acting as a ‘taxi service’.
What needs to happen is for the British Government to negotiate deals with our European partners for the rescued migrants to be returned to the Continent instead of being ferried to our shores.
There is nothing remotely cruel about such a policy. After all, our nearest coastal neighbours are liberal, democratic countries and, under the Dublin Convention, asylum seekers are required to make their claims in the first safe countries they reach.
In any case, it is in the interest of such nations to clamp down on the trafficking gangs rather than allowing them to act with impunity.
It is too simplistic to argue that our Navy should act unilaterally to take these migrants straight back to the Continent. That would be wholly impractical and a major breach of international law.
Britain would not tolerate French military ships sailing into our southern ports to leave groups of illegal migrants on the quayside.
But with more imagination, flexibility, resources and sheer willpower, along with an international accord, our Government can overcome the current problem in the Channel before it spirals out of control.