Channel crossings: Fresh UK-France tensions as minister admits only five migrants returned to Europe this year

Efforts between the UK and France to stem illegal Channel crossings have been hit by fresh tensions – on the same day it was revealed only five migrants have so far been returned to Europe this year after making the journey to Britain by boat.

Home Secretary Priti Patel this week met her French counterpart, Gerald Darmanin, after the number of people arriving in the UK via Channel boat crossings recently hit a record for a single day.

Following the conclusion of Monday’s meeting, the Home Office issued what it said was a joint statement between Ms Patel and Mr Darmanin.

It said the pair had “agreed to accelerate the delivery of the commitments” made in July “to deliver on their joint determination to prevent 100% of crossings and make this deadly route unviable”.

But the French embassy in the UK has now queried the statement, posting on its Twitter account on Wednesday that the “100% figure was not agreed” between Ms Patel and Mr Darmanin and “should not be presented as an agreed commitment: it is not”.

“And it is not part of the joint statement,” the tweet added.

Following the embassy’s intervention, Home Office sources pointed to comments by Mr Darmanin at a news conference last month, at which the French interior minister was quoted as saying the UK and France “should be able to reach 100% [of interceptions] if we push resources and if our British friends continue to help us as they are doing now”.

The emergence of tensions between French officials and the Home Office came after UK government minister Tom Pursglove told MPs that just five migrants who crossed the Channel by boat to the UK had been returned to European countries so far this year.

In total, more than 23,000 people have arrived in the UK via small boats this year, compared to 8,500 in 2020, Mr Pusglove told the House of Commons’ home affairs committee on Wednesday.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, the committee’s chair, challenged the minister that the ability of the UK to return migrants to the EU had got “substantially worse” following the end of an asylum agreement with the bloc after Brexit.

She said this agreement “did allow us to return several hundred people a year to EU member states”.

According to Home Office data, between January 2019 and March 2020 – when EU asylum rules still applied to the UK – more than 155 people who entered the UK illegally on small boats were returned to Europe.

“You will appreciate that there have been some difficulties around securing returns, not least as a consequence of COVID, that is an important context that I think we need to bear in mind,” Mr Pursglove told the committee.

“The ambition remains to secure successful returns arrangements with our European friends and neighbours and, potentially, with the EU.”

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Mr Pursglove, a minister in both the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, acknowledged that small boat arrivals were “becoming the route of choice for facilitations by evil criminal gangs”.

“The smugglers are becoming more audacious, we are seeing riskier behaviours,” he said.

“We are seeing bigger boats deployed. We are seeing a wider array of crossings originating from a wider stretch of coastline.”

And he admitted that a “five-fold increase in clandestine arrivals this summer compared with 2018 is completely unacceptable”.

“We’ve got to do better on this,” Mr Pursglove added. “And I will not rest until we get to a far better place on this issue.”

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