Last week the government awarded a £13.8 million contract to operate a new ferry service between Ramsgate and Northern France in the event of a no-deal Brexit – the money going to a company which, as yet, seems to possess no ferries. But that is a minor misuse of public money compared with the costs that the government will impose upon itself if it fails to tackle that other embryonic cross-Channel ferry service – the one being operated by Border Force and RNLI in conjunction with a bunch of thugs with a flotilla of rubber dinghies.
Fresh back from his safari holiday, Sajid Javid today has a chance to respond robustly to the people-traffickers who have so-far brought a trickle of migrants across the Channel, emulating the much bigger human trade across the Mediterranean which has cost thousands of lives over the past few years. He could order the Border Force to intercept the boats, pick up their human cargoes and return them to Northern France, whence they came. If he did this now, he would very quickly destroy any incentive for migrants to pay the traffickers large sums to make the dangerous journey. With atmospheric pressure high this week and the seas calm, he might even succeed in closing down the traffickers before a single life is lost.
Yet the government is in danger of repeating the same error as has been committed in the Mediterranean with fatal results. By intercepting boats and bringing their passengers to British shores we are completing the traffickers work for them. We are, in effect, operating a ferry service – and colluding with criminal gangs who are charging enormous fees to convey people in lethally inadequate boats.
There are some who will try to maintain that picking up migrants mid Channel and returning them to France is illegal under international law. Yet that is not the view of David Wood, a former Home Office official whose job it was to enforce immigration rules. As he pointed out last week, France is a safe country, and so long as UK boats have permission to land migrants on its shores there is no legal or moral issue with that. It is no different, in principle, to a French coastguard picking up a British yachtsman who has got into trouble in the Channel and escorting him back to a UK port.
So why hasn’t the government so far ordered migrants to be taken back to France? It is hard to escape the conclusion that ministers are simply terrified of an adverse reaction from the many charities and pressure groups who have set themselves up as advocates for migration. They fear the political consequences if Lily Allen is filmed blubbing on a French beach in the company of migrants who have been returned there after being picked up in their dinghies, their dreams of a new life in Britain ruined.
But if Javid blinks, the government will face a far, far worse form of negative publicity. When migrants start to drown and children’s bodies start to be washed up on Kentish beaches, it won’t be the people-traffickers who bear the brunt of the public backlash – it will be the Home Secretary.
It is not going to be easy defying the liberal voices who will protest if migrants are hooked out of their dinghies and taken back to France. Tales of human misery are already creeping into the discourse – the Guardian carries today a story about an Iranian who is desperate to join his sister in Manchester (though didn’t appear to ask him why he has not taken the proper course of action by claiming asylum in France and then applying to be transferred to Britain in order to join family). But doing anything to encourage migrants to make dangerous journeys in a sea generally far colder and rougher than the Mediterranean will cause far more human misery.