France and U.K. Trade Accusations on Channel Migrant Deaths
(Bloomberg) -- Britain and France swapped recriminations for the deaths of at least 27 migrants after their boat capsized in the Channel on Wednesday as they tried to cross the dangerous shipping passage in winter weather.
After Boris Johnson accused France of not doing enough to stop people from trying to get to the U.K., French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said Britain’s labor market acts as an incentive to try to reach the country.
“Everybody knows that there are up to 1.2 million clandestine migrants in the U.K. and English business leaders use that workforce,” he told RTL radio on Thursday. His comments came after France revised down the number of casualties from an earlier estimate of 31.
The incident has triggered a fresh row between France and the U.K., with Johnson’s government reiterating that it is paying 54 million pounds ($72 million) in installments to help French authorities boost patrols to prevent boats from leaving. The prime minister’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters on Thursday talks are ongoing about the U.K.’s offer to send its own personnel to help in northern France -- an idea that has been rejected in the past.
“We’ve had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves,” Johnson told broadcasters late Wednesday.
The U.K. and France are at a sensitive time in their post-Brexit relationship, which has been strained by tensions on a range of issues from defense to the granting of fishing licenses. Australia’s decision in September to ditch a submarine contract with France in favor of an agreement with the U.S. and the U.K. served to increase the personal animosity between Johnson and Macron.
British newspapers reported Thursday that French police had stood aside as migrants boarded small boats bound for the U.K.
Asked about the reports during a visit to Croatia on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron said France has never had so many police mobilized on its borders to tackle the problem, calling it “a total mobilization.” But he said that when migrants arrive on the shores of the Channel, it’s already too late.
More than 25,000 people are estimated to have arrived in the U.K. from France in small boats this year, about three times as many as in 2020. Johnson faces intense domestic pressure to halt the crossings, which line the pockets of people smugglers. The Times newspaper reported an Afghan soldier who worked for British forces was among those who reached the U.K. on Wednesday.
Yet following her call with Darmanin on Thursday, U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel told MPs there is “no quick fix” and that preventing the Channel crossings will “be impossible without close cooperation between all international partners and agencies.” She also said had repeated the U.K.’s offer for joint patrols in northern France.
Darmanin’s office said he will host his Dutch, Belgian, British and German counterparts, as well as the European Commission, for talks on Sunday in Calais to seek ways to boost cooperation in tackling human trafficking.
In their call on Wednesday night, the U.K. said Johnson and Macron had “agreed on the urgency of stepping up joint efforts” to prevent the crossings, and “underlined the importance” of working closely with other European nations to tackle the migrant problem before people arrive in northern France.
But Macron’s office said he had also warned Johnson to “refrain from politicizing a dramatic situation.
While migrants typically try to reach the U.K. in the summer, this year they have continued into the colder months as gangs operated cut-price journeys by overcrowding boats, according to the U.K.’s National Crime Agency.
Those who cannot afford the fees are using kayaks or even paddling pools, and some have tried to swim the 21 miles (34 kilometers) across the narrowest part of the Channel, which is the world’s busiest shipping lane.
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