10/08/2015 04:31 BST | Updated 10/08/2015 07:59 BST

Philip Hammond Branded 'Shameful' For Claiming Influx Of African Migrants Would Hit British Living Standards

A migrant stands by the sea in Ventimiglia, at the Italian-French border, Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Police at Italy's Mediterranean border with France forcibly removed a few dozen African migrants who have been camping out for days in hopes of continuing their journeys farther north, a violent scene Italy is using to show that Europe needs to do something about the migrant crisis. (Luca Zennaro/ANSA via AP)

Britain's foreign secretary has sparked a fierce backlash for comments he made on Sunday that "millions" of African migrants would threaten citizens' living standards.

Philip Hammond claimed that large numbers of desperate immigrants were "marauding" around Europe, pushing down living standards and social structures.

But the Runnymede and Weybridge MP triggered a barrage of criticism from rights groups, who rubbished Mr Hammond's "mean-spirited response" as "shameful".

Steve Symonds of Amnesty International UK called for the focus on the influx of immigrants to Europe to be shifted away from protectionist outcries and instead for ministerial interventions to better reflect humanitarian issues.

"Rather than throwing up the drawbridge and talking about how Europe can 'protect' itself from migrants, Mr Hammond should be working with our EU partners to ensure that people don't drown in the Mediterranean or get crushed beneath lorries at Calais," he said.

The foreign secretary made his comments during a trip to Singapore

Mr Hammond's opposite number in the Labour party, Hilary Benn, also weighed into the debate on Monday, urging the Conservative minister to "think more carefully about what he says".

He added: "We need responsibility and international leadership from this government, not scaremongering," he said. "Those fleeing Syria are desperate refugees from a country being torn apart by war."

Hammond's comments come days after David Cameron was criticised for referring to thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and Eritrea as a "swarm".

Diane Abbott, the firebrand MP for Hackney, also chastised the foreign secretary, hitting back at the remarks tweeting: "No. Generations of immigrants helped build up UK"

A spokesman for the British-based Asylum Aid charity added: "We totally condemn Hammond’s inaccurate and inflammatory statements. It is simply not true that 'millions of Africans' are coming to Europe or that they represent a threat.

"The majority of the refugees arriving on European shores in the last year have come from countries that are at war, in conflict or under dictatorship."

Hitting out at the government's rhetoric on migration, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: "Philip Hammond is great at sounding macho from the cliffs of Dover.

"But the Tories' language is becoming increasingly hostile and unsavoury. In reality, they are too scared to deal with the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Calais.

"Britain can’t escape the problem just by sounding 'tough', it needs to take a lead. It’s time we proved our worth on the world stage, signed up to the EU asylum policy and accept our share of vulnerable refugees, rather than expect other countries to do it for us."

Mr Hammond made his comments on a visit to Singapore this weekend, calling for EU laws to be overhauled to ensure those emigrating from their home countries could find a better way of life could be returned to their own country.

He said that in many cases, migrants knew they only had to set foot in Europe for there to be little chance of them ever being forced to leave.

Migrants have turned to desperate measures to gain access to the Channel Tunnel

"We have got to be able to resolve this problem ultimately by being able to return those who are not entitled to claim asylum back to their countries of origin. That's our number one priority," he told BBC News.

His comments came after Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras warned that his country was being overwhelmed by the influx of arrivals crossing the Mediterranean from the Middle East and Africa.

Last month alone almost 50,000 migrants arrived in the EU through Greece compared to a total of 41,700 in the whole of last year, according to the latest figures from Frontex, the EU border agency.

Mr Hammond added in his Eastern address that the gap in living standards between Europe and Africa meant there would always be an "economic motivation" for Africans to try to make it to the EU.

David Cameron called migrants a "swarm"

"As long as the Europe Union's laws are the way they are, many of them will only have to set foot in Europe to be pretty confident that they will never be returned to their country of origin," he said.

"Now, that is not a sustainable situation because Europe can't protect itself and preserve its standard of living and social structure, if it has to absorb millions of migrants from Africa."

Mr Hammond said that ensuring migrants could be returned to their country of origin was also the key to resolving the "crisis" at Calais, where hundreds are gathered in the hope of being able to make it across the Channel to Britain.

"Having reviewed the situation in the light of the crisis it is clear that there is more that can be done to enhance the physical security of the tunnel," he said.

"But we also have to work with our French colleagues to try to deal with the root cause of the problem. So long as there are large numbers of pretty desperate migrants marauding around the area there will always be a threat to the tunnel's security."

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