The home secretary has questioned whether migrants making risky journeys across the English Channel are “genuine” asylum seekers.
A rising number of migrants have been attempting journeys through the world’s busiest shipping lane in small boats in an attempt to get into Britain.
The situation was declared a “major incident” declared last month. Speaking during a visit to Dover, Sajid Javid asked why the migrants had failed to seek sanctuary in the first safe country they had entered.
His comments prompted a backlash from MPs and campaigners, and came as two men were been arrested on suspicion of arranging the illegal movement of migrants into the UK,
Javid also requested the help of the Navy to patrol the English Channel in what would represent a significant escalation of Britain’s response to the migration issue.
The home secretary added that UK authorities could begin denying their asylum requests in a bid to deter others from making the dangerous journey.
He told reporters on Wednesday that 539 people had crossed the Channel illegally in 2018, with 80% making the journey in the last three months of the year.
He said in “almost every case” those crossing went on to seek asylum in the UK, adding: “A question has to be asked: if you are a genuine asylum seeker why have you not sought asylum in the first safe country that you arrived in?
“Because France is not a country where anyone would argue it is not safe in anyway whatsoever, and if you are genuine then why not seek asylum in your first safe country?”
Labour backbencher Stella Creasy, who has visited migrant camps in Calais, accused Javid of normalising “anti-refugee rhetoric online”.
She added: “The asylum system in France is completely deadlocked and I fear deliberately so – they should be challenged on that.
“But none of that means Britain can absolve itself of responsibility to refugees.
“People will continue to die and be at mercy of traffickers all the time politicians pretend to play tough for votes rather than recognise why people flee.”
Paul Hook, head of campaigns at the charity Refugee Action, added: “The Home Secretary must remember that these are people who have fled their homes and they each deserve a decent, humanitarian, and understanding response.
“This situation demands our compassion and cool, calm heads and we hope the Home Secretary will reflect this in his statements on the subject.”
Dr Lisa Doyle, director of advocacy at the Refugee Council, said Javid’s comments were “deeply concerning”.
She added: “The outcome of an asylum application cannot be pre-judged before it has been made and must be processed on its individual merit, irrespective of how that person reached the country.
“Let us not forget that we are talking about people who are in desperate need of protection, having fled countries with prolific human rights abuses.
“What is more, we are hearing time and again that the conditions in France do not make people feel safe, with migrant camps being razed from the ground and people experiencing violence from the authorities.”
“It’s a shame that the Home Secretary seems to need reminding that seeking asylum is a right and the UK has an obligation to assess claims fairly and grant protection to those who need it.”
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt however backed Javid. Speaking from Malaysia, he said: “I think the Home Secretary is right to say that, as a country that is very proud of our tradition of granting asylum to people who need it, we also want to make sure that isn’t abused.
“But our priority right now is the safety of people in the Channel; to discourage people from making this very dangerous crossing, but to make sure that everyone that does is kept safe.”
Hunt also said that the Government believed the problem had to be “tackled at source” through international development programmes to remove the impetus for people to make the dangerous crossings.
Javid, who is viewed as a contender to succeed Theresa May as prime minister, cut short a family holiday in South Africa to take control of the situation in December following mounting criticism over ministers’ response.
On Wednesday, he announced two more Border Force cutters will patrol the English Channel after scores risked the perilous crossing over the Christmas period.
Following talks with high-level officials on Monday, Javid also redeployed two cutters from overseas to join HMC Vigilant and pledged better co-operation with French authorities.
He acknowledged that if Border Force vessels pick up migrants in British waters, they would be taken to a port in Britain, but said the UK would send a strong message to trafficking gangs that they “won’t succeed”.
But he stressed that journey across the world’s busiest shipping lane were highly perilous, and being undertaken by children as young as nine.
“It’s incredibly dangerous, please do not do that, you are taking your life into your own hands,” he said.
“Also if you do somehow make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure that you are often not successful because we need to break that link, and to break that link means we can save more lives.”
Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, has said Europe cannot “close its borders” as he spoke about the migrant crisis facing the continent.
The Labour leader said it’s “obviously necessary to work with other countries”, but highlighted the “humanitarian aspect” of those people trying to cross into the UK.
“They are the product of wars, they are the product of human rights abuses, they are the product of environmental disasters. Europe cannot close its borders to them,” he said.