UK and France clash over response to canal migrant tragedy

Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron were struggling Thursday to coordinate a coherent response to the deaths of 27 migrants who drowned while trying to cross the English Channel from France the day before.

The British and French governments, blaming the deterioration of relations since Brexit, blamed human traffickers’ criminal networks for the tragedy and vowed to crack down on gangs where would-be asylum seekers risked their lives in small boats.

“We need stronger European cooperation in this regard, given that France is a transit country,” the French president said during a visit to Croatia.

On Thursday, 62 more migrants arrived in the UK in small boats, while France stopped another 30.

Tensions between the UK and France continued yesterday with Priti Patel, the British Home Secretary, saying the onus was on the French government to prevent people from crossing the canal. “I have offered to work with France to put the officers on the ground and do whatever is necessary to secure the area so that people in danger do not risk their lives by boarding unseaworthy boats,” she told the Council of the Commons.

Macron added that France is asking for “additional mobilization from the British. Because I remind you, when it comes to this, we reserve the border for the British.”

The French president said cooperation needs to be improved with Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom and the European Commission. Jean Castix, his prime minister, called ministers responsible for immigration to a meeting in Calais on Sunday to discuss the crisis.

Johnson wrote to Macron on Thursday evening offering five proposals the UK prime minister said could de-escalate the situation, including reciprocal naval patrols in each other’s territorial waters.

Johnson added that a bilateral agreement to return migrants to France would have an “immediate and significant impact” on those trying to cross the Channel.

“If those who have reached this country are returned quickly, the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of human traffickers will be greatly diminished,” Johnson wrote.

Both Johnson and Macron are under fire from anti-immigration politicians for their perceived failure to prevent thousands of asylum seekers and other migrants from arriving from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Two migrants rescued on Wednesday recovering from severe hypothermia from Iraq and Somalia.

Macron has already moved to toughen his immigration policies ahead of his re-election campaign in April against anti-immigration candidates such as veteran Eric Zemmour and far-right politician Marine Le Pen.
Bilateral cooperation between London and Paris has been made difficult by post-Brexit arguments, and at times hostile comments, between the leaders of France and the United Kingdom on everything from migrants to fishing licenses, Covid-19 policies and the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Gérard Romiti, who heads France’s fisheries commission, said yesterday that fishermen will use trucks to block three ports – Calais, Saint Malo and Oysterham near Caen – and the motorway’s approach to the Channel Tunnel on Friday as a “warning shot” to the UK over its refusal to grant adequate licenses French fishing boats after Brexit.

UK immigration figures released on Thursday showed the impact of small boat migration on the UK’s asylum system. It received 15,104 applications in the July-September period, up 60 percent compared to the same quarter in 2020. Applications for the year through September were up 18 percent from the year ending September 2020, to 37,562.

However, for the year ending in June – the last period in which comparisons can be made – the 37,235 applications received still place the UK only fourth in Europe in terms of the number of asylum applications received, the lowest Much more than 113,625 in Germany and 87,180 in France.

Hundreds gathered in Calais and Dunkirk Thursday night to mourn the deaths of those displaced at sea as they attempted to voyage across the canal, as candles were lit and speeches in English and Arabic were given.

Jean-Marc Boesisso, president and chief of the Calais and Boulogne ports, said he was completely “tired” of the lack of support for people facing precarious situations in camps around the city, and that increased police work on the 130-kilometre coast was important. “Not the solution.”

He said the millions of euros spent on police should instead be used to create an international center for migrants, funded by countries across Europe, that would house potential asylum seekers and help them process their claims. He said it was a “failure on the part of the European Union and the United Kingdom” because such a system had not yet been established to treat the displaced in a humane manner.

Additional reporting by Air Nolso and Domitil Alan In Paris

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