France Accuses U.K. of ‘Blackmail’ Over Migrant Crossings

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought into Dover, Kent, on Sept. 8. (Photographer: Steve Parsons/PA Images/Getty Images)

France Accuses U.K. of ‘Blackmail’ Over Migrant Crossings

France won’t accept “financial blackmail” from the U.K. over migrants crossing the English Channel, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said Thursday, accusing his British counterpart Priti Patel of “posturing.” 

Britain and France are trading blows over how to tackle a rising number of migrants making their way to U.K. shores across the world’s busiest shipping area, with the government in London asserting it has legal powers to turn round the small boats involved. The U.K. will press ahead with training its maritime border force to intercept and return the vessels, according to a person familiar with the matter.

On Wednesday, Patel met Darmanin in London to discuss the crossings. According to the Financial Times, Darmanin rejected proposals for a joint Franco-British command center to deal with the problem and warned of the dangers of forcing migrant boats back to the French coast.

Cracking down on migration was one of the pledges made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he campaigned to take Britain out of the European Union. Patel, appointed Home Secretary for her Brexit credentials, is now under pressure from Conservative Party colleagues to explain how a U.K. promise of 54 million pounds ($75 million) to support French efforts to stop crossings is being spent. Suggestions she might withhold future payments led Darmanin to accuse the British of “financial blackmail.”

“France won’t accept any behavior that breaches maritime law, or any financial blackmail. Great Britain must honor its commitment. I said this clearly to my counterpart, @pritipatel,” Darmanin said in a tweet on Thursday. “The friendship between our countries deserves better than posturing that damages cooperation between our services.” 

In a letter to Patel seen by the FT, Darmanin described plans for a joint intelligence unit on smuggling gangs as “premature,” and rejected the possibility of a bilateral deal on returning migrants. 

U.K. officials are understood to be frustrated that French privacy laws mean the offer of a surveillance plane to patrol the French coast was rejected. 

The person familiar with U.K. plans for training the border force said the U.K. has identified a legal route to return boats to France when it is safe to do so and the Nationality and Borders Bill currently passing through Parliament will make the power even stronger in law. Training of the border officials is due to conclude this month. 

On Monday 785 migrants arrived in the U.K. after making the journey from France in small boats, with several young children and a baby among them. That’s the second highest daily total crossing, following a record of 828 arrivals on one day last month. 

Pierre-Henri Dumont, who represents Calais in the French National Assembly, told BBC radio Wednesday that “nothing can stop” the migrants, the majority of whom are fleeing Syria, Iran and countries in Africa.

“The fact is, we’ve got 300 to 400 kilometers (248 miles) of shore to monitor every day and every night,” Dumont said. “It’s quite impossible to have police officers every 100 meters because of the length of the shore.” 

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