Channel deaths fuel UK-France tensions over migrant boats

Migration Britain France

LONDON (AP) — The deaths of at least 27 people in the English Channel is fueling tensions between the U.K. and France over how to stop migrants from crossing the world’s busiest shipping route in small boats.

Despite a pledge from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron that they would “do everything possible” to stop people smugglers from endangering lives, politicians on both sides of the channel are already blaming their counterparts for failing to prevent Wednesday’s tragedy.

British officials expressed frustration that France has rejected their offer to bolster enforcement along the channel coast by sending British law enforcement officers to conduct joint patrols with French police. But Macron said his country needed “more responsible partners” in the U.K. and the European Union to fight illegal immigration.

“We are completely mobilized along our coast,” Macron told reporters during a visit to Croatia. “We are obviously going to maintain this maximum presence … (and) ask for additional mobilization from the British. Because I remind you, when it comes to this, we are holding the border for the British.”

Wednesday’s tragedy comes amid an increase in the number of migrants trying to cross the channel in inflatable boats and other small craft after the COVID-19 pandemic limited air and ship travel and Britain’s departure from the European Union curtailed cooperation with neighboring countries.

More than 23,000 people have already entered the U.K. on small boats this year, up from 8,500 last year and just 300 in 2018, according to data compiled by Parliament.

In June, the British government agreed to pay 54 million pounds ($72 million) to help France combat people smuggling. U.K. authorities have also proposed joint patrols, but France has repeatedly rejected to offer because of concerns it would undermine French sovereignty.

Home Secretary Priti Patel, who oversees the U.K. immigration system, on Thursday told the House of Commons that she had renewed the offer of joint patrols “yet again ... in the last hour.”

“The status quo cannot persist,″ Patel said. “I think there’s a full understanding of this on the French side.”

The tensions are at least partly the result of Britain's departure from the EU, which took effect at the beginning of last year.

When it left the bloc, Britain also exited a system that provided for intra-European cooperation on asylum and other migration issues, said Nando Sigona, professor of international migration and forced displacement at the University of Birmingham. At the same time, people smugglers have realized the channel is a lucrative route for migrants and they are stepping up their effort with bigger boats.