The government has defended its immigration strategy after deaths in the English Channel prompted renewed criticism of the “stop the boats” pledge – including from Tory MPs.
At least six people died after a small boat crossing from France to the UK capsized and sank, in what has been described as an “appalling and preventable” tragedy.
Campaigners are now urging the government to create more safe and legal routes to the UK while MPs from across the political spectrum are calling for a clampdown on the criminal gangs profiting from these dangerous journeys.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made “stopping the boats” one of his five priorities in government.
Asked if the Channel tragedy was a “damning indictment” of his failure to make good on that promise, Welsh Secretary David TC Davies said: “No, it’s not. The government has been stopping boats.”
Mr Davies said funding for patrols on the French border had reduced the number of crossings, while a returns deal with Albania had resulted in a 90% reduction of people coming from the south European country.
He admitted it is a “really difficult problem to completely solve” but said the Rwandan deportation policy – currently held up by legal challenges – would act as a deterrent.
“I believe those people who are genuinely fleeing from war and oppression will be happy to be housed in any safe third country,” he said.
“But it is going to take away the incentive for people to jump into a rickety boat and risk their lives coming here, sometimes in the hands of people smugglers who are making a fortune out of it. We need to stop these tragedies, not to encourage more people to come in.”
The Channel tragedy came at the end of Rishi Sunak’s “small boats week”, which was meant to reinvigorate his plan to tackle illegal immigration but quickly unravelled amid the discovery of bacteria in the water supply of the Bibby Stockholm barge.
It meant all 39 migrants who had boarded the vessel in Dorset just days earlier had to be removed – a significant set back to a plan that has been beset with delay and controversy from the very start.
However, ministers intend to push on with plans to hire more barges to house asylum seekers, as well as student halls and former office blocks, The Telegraph reported.
The government has argued using basic accommodation will act as a deterrent to Channel crossings while bringing down the £6m a day it is spending on hotels.
But in a further blow to Rishi Sunak, this week saw the highest daily number of people cross the Channel, with 755 migrants making the journey on Thursday.
It brought the cumulative total since records began in 2018 to over 100,000.
Further crossings this week – including the arrival of 509 people on Saturday – mean more than 1,600 people crossed the Channel in the past three days, bringing the total for the year so far to 16,679, according to Home Office figures.
Immigration plans ‘total failure’
Labour accused the government of a “total failure on immigration”.
Shadow education secretary Bridget Philipson said ministers should come up with a plan to target people smuggling gangs and bring down the asylum backlog rather than “ridiculous, ludicrous and increasingly unworkable schemes”.
She told Sky News: “We need a serious government that is focussed on this as a real issue that we’re facing as a country. What we get increasingly from the Conservatives is gimmicks and headlines.“
Calls for action also came from within the Conservative party.
Writing in the Sunday Express, Tory backbencher and former party chairman Sir Jake Berry said: “We must put a stop to the vile people smugglers who trade in human misery and whose actions result in the loss of life.”
Meanwhile senior Conservative backbencher David Davis derided the “startling incompetence” of the Home Office after the Bibby Stockholm saga, suggesting it was “not fit for purpose”.