Video report by ITV News Correspondent Neil Connery
Boris Johnson has branded migrants’ Channel crossings a "very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do" as he hinted at changing laws to tackle the crisis.
The prime minister’s comments came as a French politician warned the UK’s decision to send in the Royal Navy "won’t change anything" and a former Home Office official said he was sceptical of the plans.
Efforts to address the crisis intensified on Monday as more crossings continued in the early hours of the morning, with an inflatable dinghy thought to be carrying more than 20 Syrians met by a Border Force patrol boat off the coast of Dover in Kent.
Speaking during a trip to St Joseph’s school in Upminster, Mr Johnson said: “There’s no doubt that it would be helpful if we could work with our French friends to stop them (migrants) getting over the Channel."
The prime minister added: “Be in no doubt what’s going on is the activity of cruel and criminal gangs who are risking the lives of these people taking them across the Channel, a pretty dangerous stretch of water in potentially unseaworthy vessels.
“We want to stop that, working with the French, make sure that they understand that this isn’t a good idea, this is a very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do."
"But then there’s a second thing we’ve got to do and that is to look at the legal framework that we have that means that when people do get here, it is very, very difficult to then send them away again even though blatantly they’ve come here illegally,” Mr Johnson added.
Neil Connery reports for ITV News from Calais:
In the wake of the comments, campaigners accused the PM of using “inflammatory” soundbites on the issue.
Lisa Doyle, the Refugee Council’s director of advocacy, said: “It’s incredibly disappointing to hear the Prime Minister using such inaccurate and inflammatory language to describe men, women and children who are desperate enough to make perilous journeys across the busiest shipping channel in the world.
“Seeking asylum is not a crime, and it is legitimate that people have to cross borders to do so.”
Meanwhile Home Secretary Priti Patel headed to Dover to meet Border Force staff and was spotted disembarking from a police boat that had been out in the Channel earlier that morning.
At the same time, the Royal Air Force (RAF) dispatched a plane to survey the Channel after the flight was authorised by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
The government has faced growing criticism and accusations of being “increasingly chaotic” in its handling of the crisis.
Meanwhile Calais MP Pierre-Henri Dumont, when asked about involving the Navy, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:
“This is a political measure to show some kind of resource to fight against smugglers and illegal crossings in the Channel, but technically speaking that won’t change anything.”
Asked if it might be a deterrent, he added:
“Yes, but that’s dangerous, because if there is a vessel from the Royal Navy trying to push a vessel, very small boat full with migrants, back into French waters – first you could say that you’ve got British vessels entering French waters, I don’t know if the British Government would be very happy to see the other way, if French vessels would enter without any ask, before or without any decision before, into British waters.”
ITV News spoke to one man who risked crossing by boat:
He said French authorities were already trying to do “whatever we can” to intercept crossings.
Former Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Normington told the programme he was “a bit sceptical” about using the navy and the “only solution” is to work with French officials to “persuade them to intensify their efforts to stop illegal migrants”.
Regarding speculation the UK may need to provide an extra £30 million to help the French fund patrols, he said: “Well, if it takes money to help the French increase their resources and their manpower then that will have to be done. There’s a long history of Britain putting money into resources for the French on the French coast.”
More than 4,000 migrants have now reached the UK so far this year, making the dangerous crossing across the world’s busiest shipping lane.
At least 597 arrived in the country in a surge of crossings between Thursday and Sunday.
Last year, Ms Patel vowed the crossings would become an “infrequent phenomenon” by now.
The Home Office has now appointed a former Royal Marine to head up an operation to tackle the problem and formally requested help from the Royal Navy for help – a move branded a “completely potty” idea by a Ministry of Defence (MoD) source.
The RAF carried out aerial surveillance using an Atlas plane as part of an “initial offer of assistance” from the MoD to the Home Office. But the purpose of the flight is so far unclear.
On Tuesday, immigration minister Chris Philp is due to hold the latest round of talks with French counterparts in Paris.