Channel migrant crossings: tension and uncertainty brews between France and the UK

Tensions between the UK and France have worsened amid the current migrant crisis, with a record-breaking 1185 people crossing the English Channel to reach British shores last Thursday, following the dismantling of several migrant camps in France.  

Migrant crossings have long been a source of friction between the UK and France, with both countries blaming the other for the perilous migrations. French interior minister Gerald Darmanin blamed the UK work market for enticing migrants to make the dangerous crossing and demanded tightening of legislation; UK officials comment on the supposed lack of effort from the French Government, arguably reflected by the dismantling of yet another migrant camp on Tuesday at Grande-Synthe, near East Dunkirk, despite rising tensions over the migrations.

Home Secretary Priti Patel spoke to her French counterpart, expressing that a joint agreement has been established to ‘stop 100% of migrant crossings’, and that preliminary follow up solutions such as intelligence sharing, police cooperation, increased patrol and surveillance have also been made.

The achievability of this goal, however, should be questioned. The UK has repeatedly promised to render migrant crossings unviable, but seemingly to no avail. Last year, the UK and France signed an agreement to increase police patrol on French beaches and the utilisation of cutting edge surveillance technology as a joint effort to tackle immigration.

In July, the UK government had pledged to pay France £54 million to fund increased channel patrols to tackle migrant crossings. This payment has since been withheld and used as leverage over France for their low interception rates of migrant crossers. More significantly, the ‘joint statement’ issued by Priti Patel has been contested by the French embassy in London, who state that it ‘should not be presented as an agreed commitment: it is not.’ This suggests apparent cooperation between the UK and France is underpinned by unresolved tension and that their approach to the migration issue remains divided.

Since Brexit, the UK no longer adheres to Dublin III, an EU law that allows asylum seekers to be transferred back to the first member state they sought refuge in. Under international law, there is no obligation for refugees to stay in the first country reached, hence making the transferring of refugees back to their initial country of asylum complicated for the UK. A recent statement by Dominic Raab suggests that MPs are not opposed to resorting to offshore processing to deal with the illegal migrant issue.

Government responses to the migration crossings invited condemnation from human rights groups in both countries. Founder of the French migrant aid charity Care4Calais expresses concerns over ‘The way human beings are treated’ in Calais and Dunkirk. ‘It is an endless cycle of abuse and harassment that achieves nothing other than to harm extremely vulnerable people… these policies of “deterrence” clearly do not work.’

These criticisms are not unfounded. Improper channel crossings can be extremely perilous. Most of the migrants are vulnerable asylum seekers fleeing from countries with poor human rights records, contradicting Priti Patel’s previous statement that those who cross the channels are primarily economic migrants who can fend for themselves.

Recent calm sea conditions may contribute to the influx of crossing migrants, but it also reflects the common perception that crossing the Channel by boat is the most achievable way of getting to the UK. As humanitarian organisations such as the British Red Cross laments, migrants won’t risk setting sail to their deaths ‘unless they are desperate and feel they have no other options.’ This sentiment is echoed by Amnesty International who pointed out that these perilous journeys were made ‘largely because there are no safe and legal routes open to them (migrants).’

As discussion of a major immigration law that would give ministers the power to process migrants offshore as part of the New Immigration Plan continues makes its way through parliament, many have voiced challenges against the government’s lack of humanitarian sensibility, emphasising that focus should be put on cracking down against transnational smugglers who profit from the migrants’ plight.

In light of existing inadequacies in migration policy and infrastructure, perhaps the UK and France should deepen cooperation over this matter and alter the trajectory of policy-making with regards to the migration crisis.

Image via Richard Murrin via Flickr with license

(Note: the borders of the original image were removed, as per license agreement)

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