It was the worst tragedy in the English Channel since the surge of migrants trying to reach Britain from France began. Some 27 people, including women and children, from Kurdistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere were drowned when their dinghy overturned. They were helpless in the freezing waters off the French coast. A few were rescued by fishermen who spotted them. The bodies of others were washed up near Calais.
The public in both France and Britain was horrified and called for immediate action to halt the brutal actions of people-smuggling gangs which load terrified migrants on flimsy and unseaworthy boats and leave them to their fate. But the tragedy soon led to angry exchanges between Britain and France, with each side blaming the other for not doing enough to halt the wave of migrants trying to cross the Channel. More than 1,000 a day have been coming across in recent weeks – and the British government seems powerless to stop the flow or to catch the gangs trafficking the refugees and economic migrants.
To deflect blame, Boris Johnson has been accusing the French of not patrolling their coastline. Britain has offered a large sum of money to help the French police to step up surveillance. But it has had little effect – the coast line is very long and it would need a huge number of police to monitor it. Britain offered also to send British police to join the French on the shore line, but Paris rejected this, saying it would be an infringement of French sovereignty.
What has made the issue so difficult is that Britain’s relations with France have fallen to the lowest level for many years. There have been public quarrels over a range of issues: over fishing rights around the Channel Islands, covid travel restrictions, Brexit rules, a ban of lorry drivers in each other’s countries and on the scrapping of France’s sale of submarines to Australia after the Australians chose to buy British and American submarines instead. President Macron is also exasperated by Johnson’s manner – his jokes about the French, his insults, his lack of serious diplomacy and his attempt to win public favour at home by laughing at the French. After the French accused Britain of being just a lapdog of America, Johnson used a mixture of English and French to say “Donnez-moi un break” and “Prennez un grip”. The French hated his way of laughing at them.
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Macron, who is in the middle of a tough election campaign, has hit back, and told aides that he thought the British prime minister was a “clown” and not serious. He was furious about Johnson publishing a private letter to Macron on Twitter before Macron had received the letter. He immediately cancelled the participation of Priti Patel, Britain’s interior minister, in a special conference in France to discuss the migrant crisis.
Both Britain and France recognise that the only way to stop the flow of migrants is to smash the smuggling gangs. But these are powerful international criminal organisations, which stretch down to the Mediterranean and across to North Africa, where many of the migrants come from. The gangs bribe officials all along the way and continue trafficking people without any official interference. Priti Patel wants concerted European action to halt the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean and also those coming through Turkey into eastern Europe and on to Germany and Britain.
None of the solutions the government has considered has worked. Britain says that all small boats in French towns should be confiscated, and it wants a ban on the sale of the rubber dinghies used to send people across the sea. This is unenforceable by law. Britain also wants to patrol the Channel with ships from the Royal Navy. But they would be breaking international law if they used force to turn the migrant ships back, or if they patrolled inside French waters. Letting the migrants sink and down would also be criminally illegal, and not allowing life boats and humanitarian organisations to rescue those in trouble would also be a violation of human rights. Britain even considered sending all migrants to Albania or Rwanda or to some distant country to be held there while their applications were processed. The idea was quickly dismissed as expensive and unworkable.
France says that Britain attracts migrants by offering them benefits if they reach Britain, providing shelter and food. Almost all migrants are easily able to slip away and join relatives already in Britain, as there are no internal police checks or identity cards. Even those who are refused asylum are rarely sent home. Often the migrants destroy their passports, so that no one knows which country they have come from. Often their home countries refuse to accept them back again. Often the migrants appeal to the courts, which say they cannot be sent home if they face persecution there.
Britain is proposing to change the Human Rights Act, which obliges Britain to follow article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This article protects the right to family life and is regularly used by foreign criminals and rejected asylum seekers to avoid being deported. Under the convention, European countries are obliged to accept asylum seekers if they face persecution at home – and it means that very many Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis, Eritreans and other Africans can all claim that they are fleeing persecution. Changing British law or withdrawing from the Human Rights convention would cause uproar within Britain, however, and would look very bad overseas.
Because Britain is no longer part of the EU, it has been excluded from European attempts to deal with the issue. So far Priti Patel has had little success in getting other EU countries to co-operate in halting migration flows. Sources in her own department in London described her as “a headless chicken….on a plane to whoever will speak to her.”
Public opinion has become increasingly hostile to migrants. There is the widespread perception that many of them, especially from Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, are not political refugees but are economic migrants hoping for a better life in Britain. British protesters objecting to their rescue in the Channel have even tried to block the launch of lifeboats sent out to pick drowning refugees from the water. But many humanitarian organisations have helped provide the destitute arrivals with food, blankets and shelter until they can be taken to reception centres to be processed.
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“Compassion fatigue” is a problem for any government trying to deal with the situation. Public opinion soon loses patience, becomes unsympathetic to the refugees and wants tough measures to be enforced. But diplomats know that nothing can be done without international co-operation, especially with France. European countries have little sympathy for Britain, because they themselves face much bigger waves of migrants. Italy, Greece and Spain are the destinations for thousands arriving each day by land and sea from the south and east. These countries have little money to pay for the huge refugee camps to house them. Conditions there are squalid and desperate. But right-wing politicians promise voters they will send the refugees home, and there is little wish to help them once they arrive.
Many Britons hope that the tragedy of the mass drownings in the Channel will deter others from trying to reach Britain by sea. But people are still arriving, despite the worsening weather and rough seas. Many have paid the smugglers thousands of dollars to be taken to a place where they can be secretly put on flimsy ships. Catching the smugglers has been difficult – but until these gangs are dismantled, the sordid trade in human misery will continue.