Britain will help fund a detention centre in northern France as part of a £500m package to stop refugees trying to cross the Channel, Rishi Sunak has said, amid continuing criticism of his plans to lock up and deport those arriving in small boats.
After a meeting in Paris, Sunak and Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said they had agreed joint funding for more French border patrols, including 500 additional officers and new drones.
They said they were aiming to intercept more small boats making dangerous crossings and drastically reduce the number of journeys, which are estimated to reach 60,000 this year.
The joint summit came after Sunak this week published legislation that gives ministers a duty to detain and deport people coming to the UK across the Channel on small boats.
Sunak has insisted he believes it is legal under international law, but human rights campaigners have condemned it as inhumane and unworkable. The UN refugee agency accused the UK of “extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection” in the UK.
Speaking in Paris, Sunak said the legislation he was introducing was legal and “designed to break the business models of the gangs”.
The UK and France have previously reached numerous deals involving cooperation between the two countries but the number of people making the journey has increased in recent years.
Critics of the plan have said Sunak needs to provide safe and legal routes for refugees fleeing war and persecution to reach the UK before carrying out his plan to detain and deport people. He has said the government will look at creating more routes without specifying how this will happen.
Sunak said: “Last year I agreed the largest ever small boats deal with France to increase UK-funded patrols by 40%. This week I announced measures to ensure nobody who enters the UK illegally can remain here.
“We don’t need to manage this problem, we need to break it. And today we have gone further than ever before to put an end to this disgusting trade in human life.
“Working together, the UK and France will ensure that nobody can exploit our systems with impunity.”
Under the plan, the UK will contribute €141m (£125m) this year, €191m next year and €209m in 2025.
Last year’s deal increased the number of French law enforcement officers by 40% and the new package will double that number of officers again, and provide some funding for a detention centre in Dunkirk to hold people with no right to remain in France.
At the press conference, Sunak spoke warmly of Macron, calling him “mon ami”, and said he hoped relations could improve between the UK and France in the post-Brexit era.
He told the French president he felt “very fortunate to be serving alongside” him. Macron has said he wants to have the “best possible relations” with the UK but they need to “fix” the consequences of Brexit.
Before the briefing, Macron and Sunak engaged in a last minute one-to-one private meeting for more than an hour, in an apparent attempt to work on their relationship.
Their chiefs of staff joined the talks at the last minute, but were not invited for the entire meeting.
The pair spoke in English, and exchanged signed shirts ahead of the Six Nations rugby fixture on Saturday. After the discussions, they had lunch together, which included vegetarian sushi, an artichoke dish and a praline tart.
Sunak’s approach to Macron was in contrast with his predecessor’s. During Liz Truss’s brief time as prime minister she said the “jury is out” on whether the French president was a “friend or foe”.
The pair also signed a new deal on civil nuclear cooperation.
Sunak said: “The UK and France are working together so that never again can the likes of [Vladimir] Putin weaponise our energy security.
“Today we’re going even further with an ambitious new energy partnership. We’ve signed a new deal on civil nuclear cooperation, agreed that France will examine the case for new energy connectors and committed to work together on low carbon energy.”
Before the press conference, Sunak came under renewed pressure over the government’s lack of a concrete plan for detaining tens of thousands of refugees before planning to deport them.
His deputy official spokesperson on Friday could not give an estimate of how many places would be needed to house all those crossing the Channel by irregular means and how much those facilities might cost.
On Friday night Conservative former minister Tim Loughton said he was “not enthused” by “subsidising the French police force even more”.
The East Worthing and Shoreham MP said: “We’ve given them a lot of money, we’ve given them a lot of kit, we’ve given them a lot of joint intelligence.
“The thing that is really going to make the difference is when the French police, in their British taxpayer-funded dune buggy, intercepts a group of migrants, they are arrested, and their claims are processed by the French police – not allowed to go and reappear the following night with a new boat, which is what happens at the moment.”
Earlier, James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, defended his opposition to a new immigration detention centre in his own constituency, even as he urged his French counterparts to do more to solve the small boats issue.
Cleverly said a former RAF base in his Essex constituency of Braintree would not be suitable for 1,500 male asylum seekers, despite the site having been shortlisted by the Home Office as potential accommodation.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday: “We are going to be looking at a range of places and, as you say, I put my thoughts forward.
“Ultimately, no decision has been made and I will continue to support the work of my good friends in the Home Office to make sure we get a grip of the situation.”