Tom Pursglove, a minister for both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, said there had been “difficulties securing returns” when he was questioned by the Commons Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
Pursglove told the committee there were 294 returns overall relating to small boat arrivals, but only five were returned this year to a European country.
He added later that “there is not a returns agreement with the European Union in place at the moment.”
Before Brexit, the UK was part of an EU returns deal known as the Dublin agreement.
When committee chair Yvette Cooper suggested returns are “substantially worse” since losing the agreement, Pursglove said, “You will appreciate that there have been some difficulties around securing returns, not least as a consequence of COVID.”
Questioned about his predecessor’s promise to prioritise a returns agreement with the French, Pursglove, who has only been in the job for two months, said the “ambition remains to secure successful returns arrangements with our European friends and neighbours. And potentially with the European Union.”
Pursglove told the committee that the overall number of asylum seekers in the year ending June 2021 was 31,115—4 percent lower than the year before—while there has been a upward trend since June.
But the number of illegal immigrants arriving by small boats has increased from around 8,500 to more than 23,000 this year.
Pursglove told MPs that Channel crossing “is becoming the route of choice for facilitations by evil criminal gangs.”
The smugglers are sending bigger boats and the stretch of coastline that the crossings originated from has quadrupled from around 50 kilometres (31 miles) to around 200 kilometres (124 miles).
Dan O’Mahoney, clandestine Channel threat commander at the Home Office, said about 60 percent of the crossings originated from outside of France, including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.
O’Mahoney also said that the Channel crossing route is “deepened and intensified, and has become so profitable for criminals” because of travel restrictions during the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic.
He cited an example of a boat crossing the Channel two weeks ago with 88 illegal immigrants on board.
“Each one of those migrants might pay, say 4,000 euros [£3,380, $4,530] … [there’re] about 350,000 euros [£296,000, $396,500] on that boat,” O’Mahoney said.
“So at a 50 percent interception rate, which is roughly what we’re seeing at the moment, criminals are always going to take that chance; even half of three 350,000 euros is a lot of money.”
The committee was told that French police have intercepted 19,000 crossings this year. But it’s unclear how many of these people were intercepted repeatedly or how many ended up succeeding in crossing the Channel because “the French aren’t taking fingerprints.”
O’Mahoney said the UK is “working really closely with the French,” but a French law regarding privacy meant French police can’t use aerial surveillance to monitor activities along the coastline.
Pursglove reiterated plans to “render the route unviable,” including toughening the punishment of human traffickers, and said there was “not one single solution to this problem.”
During the session, O’Mahoney also confirmed that previously reported plans by ministers to use giant wave machines to prevent illegal immigrant crossings were “never considered,” adding, “I think it’s a bizarre idea.”
Nets to snare boat propellers are also not being considered and officials ruled out using floating walls in the sea, he said, as he described a number of the ideas that made their way into the headlines as “fanciful.”
PA contributed to this report.