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Sunday, 23 January 2022

London and Paris must act together in securing safe passage for migrants

London and Paris must act together in securing safe passage for migrants
Ian Black
Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron are both benefitting politically from the Anglo-French spat over the 27 migrants who drowned when trying to cross the English Channel last week. At least they hope so. By adopting a confrontational approach to this latest human tragedy they are signaling their commitment to controlling access to their respective borders and preserving national sovereignty.

But they are making a serious mistake. Johnson is under domestic pressure because of his failure to respond to mounting accusations of sleaze and corruption against his own Conservative government. And Macron is facing a rightwing-dominated presidential election next April in which it serves his own interests in sounding tough in relations with France’s closest ally on the other side of La Manche.

Tensions between London and Paris have risen to a new high in recent months. Brexit – the key to Johnson’s election victory in December 2019 – has been the source of much unease. The subsequent row over fishing rights has had a disproportionately negative effect. And the US deal with Australia (backed by the UK) over submarines that replaced a pricey French contract didn’t help either.

The issue of migration is particularly delicate in the UK on account of Brexit. One of the main rallying cries of the "Vote Leave" campaign in the 2016 referendum to depart from the EU had been for the UK to "take back control" over its own borders. The reason for the slogan was that before Brexit, the country's immigration laws had to be in line with EU legislation and allow for freedom of movement and work for EU citizens coming to the UK in exchange of allowing Brits to settle anywhere in the EU.
Another effect of Brexit was the UK’s departure from Europol, an EU-wide policing organisation that was involved in sharing intelligence about people smugglers and intercepting their communications.
Last Wednesday’s disaster was the deadliest since the Channel became a route for migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, who have been using small boats to reach England from France since 2018. Seventeen men, seven women, including one who was pregnant, and three minors died when their inflatable boat lost air and took on water off the port of Calais last Wednesday.
With three times the number of migrants attempting to cross the Channel this year than last, Johnson and his Home Secretary, Priti Patel, have repeatedly promised to step up patrols and intelligence gathering. But the French authorities have criticised Britain's handling of the crisis, including so-called “push back tactics,”  which see boats forcibly turned back to France. Paris has so far rejected UK calls for “boots on the ground” – British police stationed in northern France to cooperate with local forces.
According to the Macron government, 31,500 people attempted to leave for Britain since the start of the year and 7,800 people have been rescued at sea, figures which doubled since August. So far this year an estimated 25,700 people have made the dangerous 25-mile journey across the English Channel – the busiest sea-lane in the entire world - to Britain. Most are from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, as well as parts of sub-Saharan Africa such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan.
In Britain, Johnson's government is coming under intense pressure, including from its own supporters, to reduce the numbers. That explains why Johnson, having written to Macron, then posted the letter on Twitter, attracting fury from the Elysee and the disinviting of Patel from a meeting with her French counterpart Gerald Darmanin in Calais.
Patel, herself of Indian origin, is perceived to be xenophobic. She has described people fleeing their own war-ravaged or impoverished countries in search of a better life as “economic migrants”. But Darmanin also said that the British government should do more to make the UK “less attractive” to asylum seekers and France would not be held hostage to British politics – the same narrow-minded approach.
Johnson’s government is keen to revive an idea for joint British-French patrols on the coast of northern France, which has in the past been rejected by Paris. Another central issue is the British legal requirement that anyone seeking to claim asylum in the UK must be physically present in the country, creating an imperative to reach it but no safe means to do so.
That means that the concept of “safe passage” has become the key to change to allow migrants who want to seek asylum in the UK, so people do not have to turn to profit-seeking smugglers to avoid dying in the Channel, which is in danger of becoming a cemetery. Migration charities and experts have called on the Johnson government to change its approach and commit to an expansion of safe routes for men, women and children in desperate need of protection.
The Labour opposition rightly criticised both the UK and French governments, saying they are "engaging in a blame game while children drown off our coastline". Johnson and Macron should be ashamed of themselves, stop thinking solely about their political ambitions, and cooperate in finding a workable solution to dealing with this escalating and shameful crisis.