Minister Nick Gibb tells Sky News the government is determined to stop the illegal route across the Channel into Britain.
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Royal Navy chiefs are considering a formal request for support to deal with migrants attempting to cross the Channel in small boats, amid a rise in incidents.
The government has said it plans to make the route from France to the UK “unviable” as the Times newspaper reported that ministers were considering a so-called “push back” approach where UK ships would stop migrant vessels leaving French waters.
Privately, government sources acknowledge that it would be difficult legally to make any physical interventions given the risk of capsizing the often unstable boats.
But one source said the idea of a “passive blockade” in the Channel to discourage people from making the journey from France was being looked at.
Any form of blockade in Channel would likely be high controversial and fraught with legal and ethical issues.
The Ministry of Defence said on Saturday it was “working hard to identify how we can most effectively assist” after receiving a request under the military aid to the civilian authorities protocol (MACA).
Assistance likely to be looked at would be surveillance, reconnaissance and command control.
A boat carrying 14 people – including two pregnant women and a child – arrived on shore at Kingsdown in Kent on Saturday morning, an eyewitness told Sky News, after another dinghy with 12 people on board was filmed being intercepted by a Border Force patrol vessel.
Sky News has also been told there was another vessel in the Channel carrying 19 people and a migrant in a wheelchair was among those seen being brought ashore at Dover.
There have already been record-breaking numbers of migrants arriving in the UK on small boats in the last few days.
Recent calmer weather in the Channel area has prompted a surge in people making the journey.
Sky News correspondent Enda Brady said one vessel appeared to have evaded Border Force patrols at sea and arrived on shore at Kingsdown on Saturday morning.
A woman who was at the shore said 14 people, including two pregnant women and a child, were on board the boat.
She told Sky News: “A pregnant lady had to be assisted off by the ambulance service to go to hospital because she was clearly about to give birth.
“It was a mad show… I’ve never seen anything like that in my time.
Kingsdown Bay, near Dover where a group of migrants made it to shore a few minutes ago @SkyNews pic.twitter.com/hX4xs6EHje
— enda brady (@SkyEnda) August 8, 2020
“It was literally just random and just popped up on shore…. All the border patrol and the coastguard were coming down at the same time because they caught them all at the same time when they got in.”
The migrants were brought ashore at Dover just a few hundred metres away from where dozens of beachgoers were sunbathing in the 33C heat of the South Coast.
In French waters, authorities said they rescued at least 33 migrants and brought them back to Calais.
Schools minister Nick Gibb told Sky News the government wants to make the route “unviable”.
“We’re talking to French ministers about preventing people leaving France in the first place, and then finding other ways of making sure that we return boats to France when they’re trying to make what is a very dangerous crossing,” said Mr Gibb.
“France is a safe country, and if people are seeking asylum, they should be seeking asylum in France in the first instance.”
But government plans to “push back” migrant boats were criticised.
Former Labour home and foreign secretary Jack Straw told BBC Radio 4: “I don’t think that just trying to push these people back is going to work and it will only take one of these dinghies to capsize and everybody to drown, which is perfectly feasible, for there to be a hullabaloo, including in the Conservative Party, and for the policy to have to be reversed, so I wouldn’t go down that route.”
Human rights barrister Sangeetha Iengar added: “Under refugee law, every person who enters a territory – which extends to 12 nautical miles from the coastline – is entitled to claim asylum. And on the other hand, under international maritime law, all captains of all vessels have a duty to help persons from vessels in distress.
“So if the proposal is for the Royal Navy to suddenly engage in pushing back or expelling migrants, I cannot see how that can be lawful.”
Britain wants Paris to intervene to stop more small vessels heading to England and take them back to French ports, rather than shepherding them onward until they reach British waters.
Immigration minister Chris Philp will meet his counterparts from France next week as he seeks to eventually shut down the Calais-to-Britain route.
He also wants migrants caught trying to cross the Channel to be fingerprinted and face “real consequences”.
Mr Gibb’s comments came after Kent County Council (KCC) said that 400 migrant children had been taken into its care this year, including 60 in the first week of August, with 23 arriving on Friday alone.
KCC leader Roger Gough has said “enormous pressure” was being put on the authority amid rising numbers of unaccompanied young migrants arriving in the UK.
He told Sky News: “What happens when they come into our care, we have a number of reception centres where they undergo a detailed assessment of their needs. Most of them will end up in semi supported accommodation and we have responsibilities up to the age of 25.
“We certainly need to see a significant reduction in the number of arrivals. There is already a concern that these are people coming from what is a safe country, from France. The best way of doing that remains to be seen.
“Looking at what happened last time we had a crisis in 2015, in the aftermath of that there was a lot of work done between British and French governments to, for example dismantle the camp in Calais, to improve security on the French side, and that did have for some time a considerable effect.”
Rough crossings: The migrants trying to reach the UK
Mr Philp has said some of the measures he would like to see brought in include migrants being deported or being taken into custody for breaking the law.
The Home Office has said it is possible the Royal Navy might be brought in to patrol the Channel’s migrant traffic – a move described as “completely potty” by a Ministry of Defence source.
The proposals reflect growing frustration in government after nearly two years of rising numbers of migrants arriving by sea from France.
Mr Gibb added: “It’s not a simple situation, nor is there a simple solution. There are legal barriers and complexities in dealing with this… issue, which is why the home secretary, Priti Patel, has been talking to her French counterparts, and why Chris Philp will also be doing the same next week.
“We are talking to our French counterparts… in order to find a solution using maritime assets, as they call it, to try and return boats to France.”