In a letter posted Thursday evening on Twitter, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked “A bilateral readmission agreement to allow the return of all illegal migrants crossing the Channel”. This letter is “Basically indigent and totally out of place”, the government spokesman, Gabriel Attal, blasted Friday morning on BFM-TV. In response, the Minister of the Interior, Gerald Darmanin, canceled the invitation of his British counterpart, Priti Patel, to Sunday’s meeting devoted to migrants.
Our journalists Julia Pascual, specialist in immigration issues, and Cécile Ducourtieux, correspondent for World in the United Kingdom, answered your questions about diplomatic tensions between Paris and London on the subject of crossings of the Channel by migrants.
Thomas: Why has the English Channel become such an important migratory route? Does this situation render the agreements between France and the United Kingdom on migration management obsolete?
Julia Pascual: The Channel and the North Sea became an important migratory route in 2018 under the effect of the increased security of the port of Calais and the Eurotunnel. There was surely also a “Covid-19 effect” with the shutdown of road and air transport. People are constantly looking for a way through. Sea crossings have the advantage of “being more successful” than others.
Jack: Why don’t we let the exiles take the ferry and Great Britain settle on their arrival the problem of reception or repatriation, as the case may be? After all, this is their border and they are no longer part of Europe. It would save lives, eliminate smugglers and earn money for travel agents.
J. P. : The Touquet accords and the Sangate additional protocol located the border on the French side. These are bilateral agreements which ultimately bear no relation to the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU. What would happen if France unilaterally decided not to respect these agreements and let people go? The British could possibly process their asylum claims under the Geneva Convention, but they could also decide to return these people to France, despite the absence of a readmission agreement between the two countries. If France violates the treaties, the UK can also decide to sit down on the law.
Alexis: It’s been several years that there are recurring problems concerning migrants between Great Britain and France. Why does this question become so thorny in such a short time?
Cecile Ducourtieux: The phenomenon of “small boats” appeared from 2018, after the efforts, on the French side, to secure the Channel Tunnel, were such that they blocked almost any possibility for migrants to get on trucks. . And, obviously, the networks of traffickers, have rushed into this niche of “small boats”, extremely profitable, by exploiting the distress of the people. For NGOs on the British side, the passages are not necessarily much more important (in number) than a few years ago (we are at around 26,000 successful crossings since the beginning of 2021), but they are clearly more visible (the boats are arriving almost all between Dover and Dungeness, far-right activists, starting with Nigel Farage, are filming their arrivals), which makes the problem more politically acute for Boris Johnson.
Aimeric: Doesn’t the UK have more to lose than France by not working in partnership? Could France not let immigrants pass and let the UK fend for itself?
C. D. : Indeed, the United Kingdom theoretically has every interest in collaborating with France, which could very well denounce the Touquet agreements and no longer play a role – not easy to assume politically – of guardian of the British border on its own soil. The British government sometimes gives the impression of having lost sight of this reality. Especially since it does not have the legal means or adequate agreements to return migrants when they arrive on its beaches. The Johnson government is hoping for an early adoption in the British Parliament of an asylum reform that would make ” pushbacks » (the return of the boats to French waters) and the sending of asylum seekers to “offshore” destinations, while their requests are examined, but for the moment no third country has come forward to host these offshore centers, and already at least three British NGOs have announced that they are suing the principle of « pushbacks ».
LL44: What makes Britain so attractive to migrants?
C. D. : Many migrants who attempt, or succeed, to cross the Channel already have family there, and they speak English, a little or perfectly. The living conditions – rather survival – in the vicinity of Calais are also terrible. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work in the UK – just like elsewhere in Europe, but the ‘gray’ illegal labor market is relatively large in some towns in the Midlands, and may attract some of them. . Finally, the United Kingdom was until the turn of the 2010s a country where it was very easy to settle when you come from abroad. That has changed a lot with the ‘toxic’ environment created by the Home Office and Brexit, but this reputation for openness may be stubborn.
Popo: Why don’t the French authorities more often denounce the “flexibility” of the UK labor market, which is one of the reasons why men and women put their lives in danger when crossing the Channel?
J. P. : The authorities do this regularly. But there are other reasons which motivate the desire of England. People have family or community ties across the Channel. Many migrants in the Calais region want to go and seek asylum in the UK because they can no longer do so in Europe. Either because they have already been rejected in a Member State, or because their fingerprints have been registered in a Member State and not the one in which they want to live. By going to the United Kingdom, they want to free themselves from the Dublin regulation.
Jean-Marc Lutin: What did the Touquet accords say? And how to challenge them?
J. P. : The Touquet agreements can be unilaterally denounced by France. However, two years’ notice is provided, during which they continue to apply. These agreements provide that checks on persons leaving for the United Kingdom are carried out at the departure of trains and boats, that is to say in France. And vice versa for people wanting to go to France from the United Kingdom. The current government does not seem to want to question Le Touquet. On the one hand, he argues that the treaty allows fluid circulation between the two countries, for what concerns regular flows. On the other hand, he considers that if we denounced the Touquet agreements, this would send a signal of openness and would have the effect of attracting more migrants to the region of Calais, in search of crossing, in other words to worsen the ‘air intake’ effect.
Lucie: Does immigration across the Channel reflect the weakness and error of one of the main motivations for the Brexit referendum (the idea of a border claim in the UK)?
C. D. : Taking back border control, this famous slogan of the Brexiters, was indeed a difficult promise to keep, the United Kingdom already depending, through the Touquet agreements, on the goodwill of France to monitor its border from the beaches of the Pas- de-Calais. Without close collaboration with France, without sharing of tasks and costs, sharing of the reception of migrants too, it is impossible to “take back control” of the borders. But the promoters of Brexit did not bother with subtlety when they campaigned in 2016. At the time, they even exploited the enormous untruth according to which Brussels was preparing to integrate Turkey into its midst.
Martin: When did the diplomatic crisis between Paris and London start? With Brexit?
C. D. : The crisis can in fact be explained by Brexit, which acts like a slow poison between Paris and London. Emmanuel Macron took a very firm position during all the Brexit negotiations – in line with the rest of Europeans, but firmer. This attitude is considered hostile by the Brexiters, who believe that Paris is doing everything to make Brexit fail. Boris Johnson does not hesitate to exploit these differences with France for domestic political reasons: a good part of the conservatives love a good argument with the French. History and stubborn prejudices between our two countries are never very far away (perfidious Albion on one side, President-Napoleon on the other, etc.). Paris seems convinced that London is only distributing licenses to French fishermen to maintain this quarrel. Paris tends to downplay the difficulties caused by the Brexit deal in Northern Ireland. The Aukus alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, experienced as a trauma by Paris, made the relationship even more toxic.
Cedric: Does Boris Johnson benefit from the support of the British population in this matter?
C. D. : What can be said about this is that the British voted in 2016 by a (narrow) majority of 52%, to leave the EU. At the time, putting an end to the massive arrivals of European populations, especially from the east, was a central argument of the “brexiters” referendum campaign. Wednesday’s drama sparked great emotion in the UK, and great compassion for the victims and their families. But the subject of “migration” is delicate – just like in France. According to a very recent survey by the YouGov institute, it is now the third concern of the British. The British left (Labor) is also approaching the subject with great caution, demands from “humanity”, more collaboration with France, says that it will not vote for the reform of the minister’s asylum. inside Priti Pate, but has no concrete plan.
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Migrants in the Channel: “The crisis is explained by the Brexit which acts like a slow poison between Paris and London”