The deaths of 27 migrants in the frigid waters of the Channel as they sought to reach the UK from France in a small boat on Wednesday have forced the two governments to set aside their post-Brexit disagreements to tackle the crisis.
Yet the solutions they advocate, centred on a stronger security response, might not be enough to stem the surge of migrants heading for the UK, analysts say.
Following the tragedy, France’s prime minister Jean Castex said the problem needed to be “dealt with at the intergovernmental and European levels”. In Downing Street, while UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the French efforts “haven’t been enough”, a senior diplomatic adviser insisted that the UK and France needed “to be working together on the bigger geopolitical and security challenges we face”.
The drownings have underlined the immense difficulty for both governments to come to grips with a long-running crisis. While Paris and London have co-operated for decades to address the flow of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa seeking to reach the English shores from northern France, relations have been fraught since Brexit.
“This [disaster] was bound to happen one day,” said demographer and economist Gérard-François Dumont.
Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, president of France, have vowed to focus on traffickers. To do so, Macron said there was a need to co-operate not only with the UK, but also with EU neighbours including Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, because the migrants travel through those countries with the help of criminal gangs of people smugglers on the way to Calais, Dunkirk and their dangerous trips across the Channel. The majority of migrants attempting to cross the Channel enter France just a “few hours before they attempt their crossing,” Castex noted.
France has invited the UK, Belgian, German and Dutch ministers responsible for immigration, and the European Commission, to Calais on Sunday to discuss how to bolster “the fight against the people-trafficking networks that exploit the flow of migrants”, said Castex.
France says it has held 1,500 people-traffickers this year, including five after the latest incident. But Dumont said there was more to be done by Paris to tackle an international criminal business with annual turnover of billions of euros, with bosses based across the world — in places where they are “untouchable”, such as northern Cyprus — and an ability to adapt to government responses.
One reason for the surge in the number of Channel crossings by boat is that the British and French authorities had increased security at ports and the entrance to the Channel Tunnel.
Dumont suggested that one way to reduce the number of illegal crossings would be to offer those tempted to emigrate the possibility to apply for asylum remotely, before their perilous journeys.
“We know the security approach doesn’t work because it didn’t work in the Mediterranean,” said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, referring to the flow of migrants in small boats to southern Europe from the north African coast. “The Med became a graveyard that damaged everyone’s integrity.”
What was needed, she said, was “a properly functioning system for those who need asylum, and legal routes for those coming for economic reasons”, an area where the EU had failed as badly as the UK even though it was essential to be able to manage consistent pressure for inward migration. “We’ve got millions of refugees around [the edge of] Europe, stuck in Turkey for example.”
Brexit has led the UK to leave the so-called “Dublin regulation” — under which asylum seekers are supposed to apply in the first EU country they enter, a provision that legitimised London’s requests for France and other EU members to process their applications. But even if the UK were to rejoin, it might not make a big difference. “The Dublin accords don’t work,” said Dumont.
For the time being, however, UK and European politicians are not inclined to reform asylum systems designed decades ago for smaller migration flows. Instead, under pressure from growing anti-immigrant public sentiment, they are set to focus on security reinforcements.
In France and the UK, there are also calls to scrap or renegotiate the 2003 Le Touquet bilateral accords under which border checks by both countries are carried out in one location at the point of departure rather than on each side of Channel — which means that the frontier for those leaving France is policed by French officers for the UK.
However, one UK minister, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said there was no appetite for changing the Le Touquet accord or rejoining the Dublin convention. “We’ve made our sovereign choice with Brexit on these treaties, we aren’t revisiting them,” the minister said.
Some in the Johnson government think that a longer term answer may be to examine articles three and eight of the Human Rights Act that one Home Office insider said “makes deportations very difficult”. The UK minister added the UK’s membership to the European Convention on Human Rights could be debated. “In the longer term, (leaving the ECHR) may be part of the solution.”