The death of 27 migrants in the cold waters of the Channel as they sought to reach Britain from France in a small boat on Wednesday has forced the two governments to override their differences after Brexit to tackle the crisis.
Still, the solutions they advocate are centered on a stronger security response, perhaps not enough to stem the rise of migrants heading to the UK, analysts say.
Following the tragedy, French Prime Minister Jean Castex said the problem should be “addressed at intergovernmental and European level”. While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Downing Street said the French effort “has not been enough”, a senior diplomatic adviser insisted that Britain and France should “work together on the major geopolitical and security challenges we face” .
The drownings have underscored the enormous difficulty for both governments to come to terms with a protracted crisis. While Paris and London have been working together for decades to counter the influx of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa seeking to reach the English coasts of northern France, relations have been strained since Brexit.
“This [disaster] should happen one day, ”said demographer and economist Gérard-François Dumont.
Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, President of France, have promised to focus on human traffickers. To do so, Macron said there was a need to cooperate not only with Britain but also with EU neighbors, including Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, because migrants travel through these countries with the help of criminal gangs of human traffickers on the way to Calais , Dunkirk and their dangerous trips across the canal. The majority of migrants trying to cross the canal enter France just “a few hours before trying to cross,” Castex noted.
France has invited the British, Belgian, German and Dutch ministers responsible for immigration and the European Commission to Calais on Sunday to discuss how to strengthen “the fight against human trafficking networks that exploit the flow of migrants,” Castex said.
France says it has detained 1,500 human traffickers this year, including five after the latest incident. But Dumont said there was more to be done by Paris to tackle an international criminal business with an annual turnover of billions of euros, with bosses based around the world – in places where they are “immovable”, such as northern Cyprus – and an ability to adapt to government responses.
One reason for the increase in the number of canal passages by boat is that the British and French authorities had increased security at ports and the entrance to the Canal Tunnel.
Dumont suggested that one way to reduce the number of illegal crossings would be to offer those tempted to emigrate the opportunity to seek asylum at a distance before their perilous travels.
“We know the security approach is not working because it did not work in the Mediterranean,” said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, referring to the flow of migrants in small boats to southern Europe from the North African coast. “With became a cemetery that damaged everyone’s integrity.”
What was needed, she said, was “a well-functioning system for those who need asylum and legal avenues for those who come for economic reasons”, an area where the EU had failed just as badly as Britain, although it was important to be able to handle a constant pressure for inward migration. “We have millions of refugees around [the edge of] Europe, for example, is stuck in Turkey. “
Brexit has led the UK to abandon the so-called “Dublin Regulation” – according to which asylum seekers must apply in the first EU country they enter, a provision that legitimized London’s requests that France and other EU members process their application. But even if Britain were to rejoin, it might not make much of a difference. “The Dublin agreements are not working,” Dumont said.
For the time being, however, British and European politicians are not inclined to reform asylum systems designed decades ago for smaller migration flows. Instead, they are set to focus on security reinforcements under pressure from growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the population.
In France and the United Kingdom, there are also calls for the scrapping or renegotiation of the 2003 bilateral Le Touquet agreements, under which border controls of both countries are carried out at one point of departure instead of on each side of the Channel – meaning that the border for them , leaving France, monitored by French officers for Britain.
However, a British minister who spoke on condition of anonymity said there was no appetite for amending the Le Touquet agreement or re-acceding to the Dublin Convention. “We have made our sovereign choices with Brexit on these treaties, we will not review them again,” the minister said.
Some in the Johnson government believe a lengthy response may be to examine Articles three and eight of the Human Rights Act, as an insider in the Home Office said “makes deportations very difficult”. The British minister added Britain’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights could be discussed. “In the long run, (leaving the ECHR) may be part of the solution.”
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