France and U.K. sign agreement to curb English Channel crossings

The interior ministers of France and Britain have signed a joint agreement in Paris to try to curb migration across the English Channel — a regular source of friction between the two countries

November 14, 2022 05:11 pm | Updated November 15, 2022 11:00 am IST - PARIS

A tanker ship is seen in the English Channel at sunrise, near Dover, Britain. File

A tanker ship is seen in the English Channel at sunrise, near Dover, Britain. File | Photo Credit: Reuters

The U.K. and French interior ministers signed an agreement on Monday that will see more police patrol beaches in northern France in an attempt to stop people trying to cross the English Channel in small boats — a regular source of friction between the two countries.

The British government has agreed to pay France some 72.2 million euros ($75 million) in 2022-2023 — almost 10 million euros more than under an existing deal — in exchange for France increasing security patrols along the coast by 40%.

That includes 350 more gendarmes and police guarding beaches in Calais and Dunkirk, as well as more drones and night vision equipment to help officers detect crossings.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the deal would mean “for the first time, British officials embedded in French operations to strengthen co-ordination and the effectiveness of our operations.”

He said the agreement would be “a foundation for even greater co-operation in the months ahead.”

The agreement, signed by French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and British Home Secretary Suella Braverman in Paris, contains proposals to fight crime across migration routes, with the two ministers agreeing that their countries would harvest information from intercepted migrants to help tackle smuggling networks.

No specific target for boat interceptions was included in the agreement, the latest in a series of deals on migration struck by the two countries over the years.

The U.K. receives fewer asylum-seekers than many European nations, including Italy, France and Germany, but thousands of migrants from around the world travel to northern France each year in hopes of crossing the channel. Some want to reach the U.K. because they have friends or family there, others because they speak English or because it's perceived to be easy to find work.

In recent years there has been a sharp increase in the number of people attempting the journey in dinghies and other small craft as authorities clamp down on other routes such as stowing away on buses.

More than 40,000 people have made the hazardous trip across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes so far this year, up from 28,000 in all of 2021 and 8,500 in 2020. Dozens have died over the years, including 27 people in November 2021 when a packed smuggling boat capsized.

Britain and France have long wrangled over how to stop the people-smuggling gangs that organise the journeys.

Monday's announcement comes as Mr. Sunak, who took office three weeks ago, aims to improve relations with Britain’s neighbors, which soured under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who often seemed to delight in riling European officials — and his briefly serving successor Ms. Liz Truss.

Mr. Sunak met French President Emmanuel Macron last week at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, and the first U.K.-France summit in several years is planned for early 2023.

In another attempt to deter the crossings, Britain’s government has announced a controversial plan to send people who arrive in small boats on a one-way journey to Rwanda — a plan it says will break the business model of smuggling gangs. Critics say the plan is immoral and impractical, and it is being challenged in the courts.

Critics also have slammed the British government for failing to process asylum applications quickly, leaving thousands of people stuck in overcrowded holding centers and temporary accommodation.

Mr. Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council charity in Britain, said enforcement measures would do little to stop the cross-channel traffic.

“The government must take a more comprehensive approach and create an orderly, fair, and humane asylum system that recognises that the vast majority of those taking dangerous journeys are refugees escaping for their lives,” he said. “It needs to face up to the fact it is a global issue which will not be resolved by enforcement measures alone.”

Ms. Braverman, a champion of the Rwanda plan who has been accused by critics of demonising migrants, acknowledged “there are no quick fixes” for the complex issue.

“But this new arrangement will mean we can significantly increase the number of French gendarmes patrolling the beaches in northern France and ensure U.K. and French officers are working hand in hand to stop the people smugglers,” she told broadcasters.

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