Britain will step up pressure to return to France migrants who have crossed the English Channel, the Immigration Minister has pledged.
Caroline Nokes confirmed that a “small number” of people who made the illegal journey at the end of last year had been sent back, as she met French interior minister Christophe Castaner in Calais.
But her comments were rebuked by Maddy Allen, field manager at the Help Refugees charity, who said returning people looked like a “political gesture” potentially connected to Brexit and cautioned that “deterrence” would not work.
Ms Allen also said an “unprecedented number” of evictions by the police of migrants in the area around Calais were taking place, with 47 police evictions in the first 19 days of 2019.
Ms Nokes refused to be drawn on how many people the Home Office is planning to return, but told the Press Association: “We’ve already returned a small number of migrants and we are going to continue working going forwards to make sure that pressure is stepped up.”
When asked if officials were quizzing migrants on whether they had relatives in the UK before they were sent back to France, she said the Government would not return people “on whom we haven’t done the appropriate checks”.
The centre will help the two countries work together in the fight against smugglers and human traffickers.
Ms Allen said people were struggling to survive in the freezing conditions, with their tents covered in snow and ice from temperatures as low as -8C with the wind-chill factor.
Asked what she made of the UK Government’s focus on prevention, she replied: “Deterrence from our experience is not going to work or support the situation that is here.
“The willingness to make the desperate journeys that we are seeing is a symptom of the violence that we see here in Calais from the police and the dire situations on the ground.”
Ms Allen added: “Returning people seems like a political gesture, potentially connected to Brexit, and the focus on the border here at the moment is not actually helping the situation on the ground.
“We know that these people make attempted return journeys and will do everything they can to get to the UK at this stage.”
A lot of people supported by the charity have family or networks in the UK or speak English as their second language, she said.
About 30 tents were pitched in the middle of an industrial area near a petrol station, close to the port.
Groups of migrants could be seen clustered on the roadside, perched on upturned wooden crates and warming themselves around makeshift fires.
Dozens of police officers were patrolling the roadside in search of what they called “illegal camps” to dismantle them.
Two men were forced to drag tents containing their belongings through the mud to a clearing truck, while a string of police officers followed behind.
On Thursday, Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced a joint action plan which will see more than £6 million invested in new security equipment as well as a mutual commitment to return migrants.
The extra funding will be used for equipment and measures to tackle illegal migration by small boats, such as CCTV, night goggles and number plate recognition capability.
Additional security cameras will be installed at French ports and in areas where migrants may attempt to board boats, which will be fed live to the UK-France Coordination and Information Centre.
There will be increased surveillance of the Channel by air and boat patrols, with shared intelligence between UK and French authorities.
Ms Nokes said she had been “struck” by French efforts to prevent people departing from beaches, though she added that she was “very conscious” of an increase in the numbers trying to cross the Channel in the last week.
“What matters most is that we prevent people from taking to the Channel, we avoid loss of life and that we co-operate to ensure people are kept safe and deterred from making these extremely dangerous crossings,” she said.
The minister agreed with Mr Javid’s assessment of the increased crossings as a “major incident”, but would not be drawn on how many migrants have attempted to cross the Channel by boat this year.
She said: “It’s absolutely right to describe this as a major incident when people were taking to the busiest shipping lane in the world, at an extremely cold and treacherous time of year, and we are determined to work together to prevent that.
“Of course, it’s right that we fund this appropriately … and what’s really clear is we will not be able to solve this on our own.
“We have to work with our friends and partners to make sure it is not just this immediate challenge which is tackled, but also the whole route of migration so we can deter it at source as well.”
A Care4Calais spokeswoman said: “The Home Secretary should re-read the Dublin regulations.
“If he did, he would find that they rightly say that we should take more notice of refugees’ family connections than whether they have already passed through a safe country.
“And he should come to Calais so he can see for himself that the most common reason that people want to make the crossing into Britain to claim asylum is that they have family here.
“We need safe and legal routes for people to claim asylum in Britain. That’s the only way to stop people making dangerous journeys across the Channel and to break the business model of people smugglers.”
It comes as a group of refugee charities said they “deeply lament” the joint plan in an open letter to Mr Javid and his French counterpart.
The organisations said precarity elsewhere in Europe and the knowledge that any makeshift shelters will be imminently demolished by French authorities was a “key motivator for displaced individuals to accept any possible ‘exit plan’ available”.
Recent security measures “have succeeded in pushing vulnerable individuals to take greater risks and forcing smuggling networks further underground”, they added.