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Since October Britain has seen a surge in small boat arrivals carrying asylum seekers predominantly from Iran and also Syria, with scores of people detained over the Christmas holiday period.
Britain's interior minister on Wednesday questioned if asylum seekers increasingly using small boats to cross the Channel from France were genuinely fleeing persecution — drawing immediate criticism from asylum advocates.
During a visit to the southeastern English port town of Dover, where asylum requests have spiked in recent months, Home Secretary Sajid Javid questioned why people had not already claimed asylum in continental Europe.
"A question has to be asked: if you are a genuine asylum seeker, why have you not sought asylum in the first safe country that you arrived in?" he said. "Because France is not a country where anyone would argue it is not safe in any way whatsoever, and if you are genuine then why not seek asylum in your first safe country?" he asked.
Authorities arrested 539 people crossing the Channel last year, with 80 percent making the journey in the last three months of 2018, according to the Home Office.
Javid announced Monday that two more border enforcement boats will patrol the area — the world's busiest shipping lane —after chairing a meeting of high-level officials.
But his comments Wednesday were labeled "deeply concerning" by Lisa Doyle, director of advocacy at the Refugee Council charity.
"We are hearing time and again that the conditions in France do not make people feel safe, with migrant camps being razed from the ground and people experiencing violence from the authorities," she said.
"It's a shame that the home secretary seems to need reminding that seeking asylum is a right and the United Kingdom has an obligation to assess claims fairly and grant protection to those who need it."
The opposition Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman Ed Davey echoed the criticism, noting Javid had made the claim with "no evidence" and that it was "completely unacceptable." "Many of these people have fled war in Syria or persecution in Iran," he added.