UK and France discuss migrant Channel crossings as more boats launch


11 August 2020, 15:05

British and French immigration ministers are holding talks in Paris on Tuesday over a recent surge in migrants trying to reach the UK by crossing the English Channel in small boats.

The UK wants more action taken to prevent such crossings and says it is considering possible changes to asylum laws.

More attempted journeys have been witnessed on Tuesday, with people packed into flimsy sea craft spotted trying to make the 32-kilometre route across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Amid favourable weather conditions over the past few days, people smugglers have stepped up efforts to encourage people to make the journey in dinghies and other vessels.

More than 650 have arrived so far in August — including 235 in a single day at the beginning of the month — with pregnant women, babies and unaccompanied children among them. The UK’s Border Force intercepted another 20 migrants — from Syria — on Monday.

Around 4,000 people are estimated to have reached the UK this year after crossing the Channel in small boats.

Euronews correspondent Victoria Smith reported from Dover that many unaccompanied minors — mostly older teenagers — were among the recent arrivals and that the authorities were struggling to accommodate them.

Legal changes considered

On Monday Boris Johnson criticised people smugglers as “cruel and criminal gangs” that were risking the lives of the vulnerable, saying the Channel crossings amounted to a “very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do”.

The government wanted to work with the French authorities to curb the problem, the prime minister added. He said possible legal changes were being considered, as once the migrants entered the country “it is very, very difficult to then send them away again even though blatantly they’ve come here illegally”.

The UK blames current asylum rules for the relatively low number of people who are returned to the continent. Under EU law — still being followed by the UK during the 11-month post-Brexit transition period — asylum applications can be transferred to the first member state the migrant entered.

But the British government says the so-called Dublin regulations could be abused. It wants a new agreement amid calls for a tougher approach from some MPs in the ruling Conservative Party.

The European Commission wants to replace the current system to better manage migrant flows, mainly due to large-scale arrivals in southern Europe.

The Refugee Council — which defends the rights of asylum-seekers in the UK — tweeted that “there is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ asylum-seeker, pointing out that the 1951 Refugee Convention recognises people may use irregular means to escape to another country and make a legitimate claim.

UK vows to ‘break up’ migrant route

The UK government has deployed a Royal Air Force surveillance plane to monitor the sea for boats carrying migrants.

British Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel — who visited the port of Dover on Monday — hinted at tougher sentences for human traffickers, describing the number of migrant crossings as “absolutely appalling and shameful” and vowing to “break this route up”.

She has appointed a former Royal Marine commando as “clandestine Channel threat commander” to try and make unauthorised sea crossings “unviable”. Dan OMahoney, the newly-appointed Clandestine Channel Threat Commander is understood to be taking part in Tuesday’s talks in Paris.

Patel has also said the Royal Navy could be called in to prevent people from reaching UK shores, a move criticised by senior officials and politicians as impractical and potentially dangerous.

Pierre-Henri Dumont, a French MP from the right-wing Les Rpublicains party representing the northern port of Calais, slammed the idea as a “political measure” which “won’t change anything”.

There have been calls from Britain for the French to do more to prevent and deter people from crossing the Channel. The French interior ministry says it stopped 10 times more journeys in July, compared to the same period last year.

French authorities routinely pick up migrants trying to illegally cross the Channel, most recently on Sunday, when rescuers retrieved 17 migrants from a rubber dinghy in distress off Calais.

Over the past week, French rescuers have picked up 125 migrants from kayaks, rubber boats or other small vessels, according to near-daily statements from the regional maritime authority.

Last month Britain and France agreed to set up a joint intelligence unit to allow for better exchanges of information about people-smuggling networks. France has also taken action to close down migrant camps that had sprung up along its northern coast.

‘Inflammatory language’ criticised

Migrants have long used northern France as a launching point to get to Britain, either in trucks through the Channel Tunnel or on ferries. As that has become more difficult amid tighter security measures, increasing numbers have turned to small boats organised by people smugglers.

Many of them come from some of the poorest and most conflict-torn zones in the world, having travelled from the Middle East, Africa or Asia.

Lisa Doyle, the Refugee Council’s Advocacy Director, accused Boris Johnson of using “inaccurate and inflammatory language” to describe their plight.

“If there were more safe and regular routes in place for people seeking asylum such as a strong resettlement programme, humanitarian visas and reformed family reunion rules the number of Channel crossings would decline sharply,” the Council said earlier on Twitter.

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