Boris Johnson has been accused of scapegoating people who are risking their lives by crossing the Channel to seek asylum in the UK and using “inaccurate and inflammatory” language to describe their plight.
Humanitarian groups and charities criticised the prime minister for describing the migrant crossings as “very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal” on Monday. They urged the government to offer safe and legal routes to Britain for people seeking refuge from violence and persecution.
As record numbers of people crossing the Dover strait in small boats continued to arrive, an RAF A400M Atlas transport plane flew back and forth scouring the waters between south-east England and northern France following a Home Office request for military assistance to patrol the Channel.
More than 4,100 migrants and refugees have reached the UK so far this year in small boats, travelling across the world’s busiest shipping lane, and a Border Force patrol vessel met more than 20 Syrians in a dinghy on Monday.
Ahead of talks between the UK and the French governments on Tuesday, Johnson told reporters it would be “helpful” if the French would work with the UK to stop the crossings, which are facilitated by criminal gangs.
“We want to stop that, working with the French, make sure that they understand that this isn’t a good idea, this is a very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do.
“But then there’s a second thing we’ve got to do, and that is to look at the legal framework that we have that means that when people do get here, it is very, very difficult to then send them away again, even though blatantly they’ve come here illegally.”
His comments were immediately met with condemnation from humanitarian groups and refugee charities.
Lisa Doyle, director of advocacy at the Refugee Council, said: “It’s incredibly disappointing to hear the prime minister using such inaccurate and inflammatory language to describe men, women and children who are desperate enough to make perilous journeys across the busiest shipping channel in the world.
“Seeking asylum is not a crime, and it is legitimate that people have to cross borders to do so.
“Instead of scapegoating people in desperate circumstances, the prime minister and his government could address this by ensuring that people do not have to take these risks.”
Rosie Rooney, of Safe Passage International, said “We recently asked the prime minister if he would meet with a group of young refugees, and so far we’ve had no reply.
“Perhaps if he took the time to speak with people arriving in the UK, he’d realise they are anything but stupid.
“Those getting in dinghies, including hundreds of unaccompanied children, are not, as the PM has suggested, ‘criminals’ and they are not ‘illegal’. They are fleeing war and persecution in the hope that this country will help them. The least stupid decision that the government could make would be to stop its inhumane policies and offer those seeking asylum a safe and legal way to do so.”
Stephen Hale, the chief executive of Refugee Action, said: “The government needs to move on from soundbites and focus constructively on serious and long-term solutions.
“Britain is better than this. We have a proud history of welcoming people fleeing some of the most violent and oppressive regimes in the world and we can’t stop now.”
Among the safe and legal alternatives suggested are a stronger resettlement programme, humanitarian visas and reformed family reunion rules.
According to the UN refugee agency, there have been 14,288 sea arrivals in Italy so far in 2020, as well as 10,198 in Spain and 8,405 in Greece.
Home Office data shows that in 2019 there were about 36,000 asylum applications made in the UK. The vast majority arrived in the UK by other means, rather than small boat crossings over the Channel.
The total compares with 165,615 asylum applications in Germany, 151,070 in France, 117,800 in Spain and 77,275 in Greece in the same period, according to Eurostat.
The Home Office lodged a request for military assistance on Friday and the Ministry of Defence is understood to be clarifying details for the request.
As a preliminary step, the RAF A400M Atlas transport plane was dispatched to support Border Force, making it easier to pick out inflatable boats and other small craft attempting to make the crossing from France. Further military deployments could follow later this week following discussions with France, although there is no scope for Royal Navy vessels to operate in French territorial waters to pick up migrants.
MoD sources added that both sides were processing what could be necessary to try to deal with the flow of migrants, but one insider said using military force was ruled out. A suggestion from a French MP that Royal Navy ships might shoot at migrant vessels to deter them was dismissed as “dangerous nonsense” by one insider.
The French government has refuted accusations by UK ministers that it was not addressing the problem of migrants crossing the Channel. France’s interior minister, Gerard Darmanin, is to meet Chris Philp, the UK minister for immigration compliance, in Paris on Tuesday.
The meeting is likely to be tense, as Philp has suggested that France is not doing enough and wrote an article this weekend telling Paris what it “must do” to tackle the problem. It has been claimed that the French government is demanding an additional £30m from the UK to fund patrols on its northern coast.