Boris Johnson has pledged to explore options to make it easier to prevent asylum seekers from reaching the UK and ease their removal, ahead of a meeting on Tuesday between his immigration minister and French officials.
The prime minister was speaking as the Royal Air Force on Monday deployed an Atlas transport aircraft over the English Channel as the first part of the Ministry of Defence’s response to a Home Office request for help to prevent crossings in small, often overcrowded boats by migrants planning to seek asylum in the UK.
The number of migrants making clandestine crossings has surged during the calm weather of recent weeks, with a record 235 people found trying to make the crossing last Thursday alone.
The UK government wants to deter crossings by making it easier to return migrants to France. Mr Johnson signalled he wanted tougher arrangements than the existing “Dublin convention” rules agreed between EU member states to limit flows of migrants across the bloc.
Under the convention, which dates back to 1990 and which the UK will leave when its post-Brexit transition period ends on December 31, migrants who seek asylum can generally be returned to the first EU country they entered.
Mr Johnson said the government would “look at” the legal framework for handling asylum seeker arrivals, which he blamed on the activity of “criminal gangs”.
“When people do get here, sometimes it’s very, very difficult then to send them away again, even though blatantly they’ve come here illegally,” the prime minister said.
A Downing Street spokesman pointed to the Dublin convention’s nine-month time limit for the return of migrants to the first country they entered as a possible area for reform.
“It’s something that can be abused by lawyers to frustrate the return of migrants with no right to be here,” the spokesman said.
Chris Philp, the immigration minister, is due on Tuesday to discuss the crisis in Paris with officials at France’s interior ministry.
Mr Johnson faces pressure from many of his backbench MPs to prevent the arrival of migrants, with many demanding he deploy the military to prevent the often overloaded and unseaworthy boats from reaching the English coast.
Vessels encountering foundering craft at sea are obliged under international maritime law to protect life at sea, meaning that UK coastguard and other official vessels frequently end up bringing migrants encountered in the UK’s territorial waters to land in the UK.
Of the 34,354 asylum claims made in the UK in the year to September, 48 per cent resulted in a grant of some form of legal protection, a figure that, based on previous years, is likely to rise further following appeals.
Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister, said it was hard to see how the UK could tighten up its controls after it leaves the Dublin convention without a new agreement with France to take back asylum seekers refused entry to the UK.
“It’s all very well having UK law saying you can send somebody to France,” Mr Yeo said. “That doesn’t mean the French have got to accept them, short of some sort of bilateral agreement with France or a group treaty with the EU.”
Ben Wallace, defence secretary, authorised the RAF to deploy an Atlas aircraft which circled above the Channel on Monday to look for migrant vessels and co-ordinate with the coastguard and Border Force. One military official said it was also intended to have a deterrent effect.
The MoD is expected to announce a more comprehensive response to the Home Office's request for help later this week.
Additional reporting by Helen Warrell in London
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