- Lucía Blasco
- BBC News World
The relentless influx of migrants now crossing the English Channel in increasingly precarious boats has put France and the UK on opposite sides.
According to the British Interior Ministry, another 14,000 people tried to reach the country through the straits, exceeding 2020 numbers.
Just last week, more than 1,500 people crossed the English Channel. And in a single day at the end of August, 828 made the crossing, a new record set.
“The numbers are unacceptable, so we are acting on all fronts,” British commander Dan O’Mahoney, responsible for monitoring the waters separating Britain from France, said in August.
“The security agencies are dismantling the human trafficking gangs (which usually operate the crossing of the canal). Working together with the French has doubled the number of police on French beaches,” he added.
But this collaboration has become a focus of friction between the two countries.
Why are more migrants crossing the channel?
“There are several reasons for the increase in migrants crossing the channel,” Peter Walsh, a researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford (England), tells BBC Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language news service.
Walsh works by analyzing data from the Home Office, the United Nations and asylum seekers in the UK.
According to him, the root of the problem is “geopolitics”. “Most migrants come from Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Sudan, countries in conflict where there are wars and political persecution.”
“Seasonal variation is another explanation: the number increases when the sea is calm and the sky is clear (as it has been in recent days and weeks),” he adds.
The expert adds that land routes are increasingly “unfeasible” for migrants to cross because they are increasingly monitored. Added to this are restrictions during the pandemic and due to Brexit, the UK’s exit from the European Union.
On Thursday (9/9), the Interior Minister of the United Kingdom, Priti Patel, said she wanted to return to France the boats that transport migrants through the English Channel.
British government sources confirmed to the BBC that a British Border Force team has been training for months to start the operation.
By this tactic, British authorities would force migrant boats to turn around the canal. It would then be up to the French coast guard to intercept vessels in its waters.
However, France is opposed to the plan. French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said “protecting human lives at sea is a priority”.
Darmanin also accused the UK of “financial blackmail”.
He was referring to a deal struck earlier this year, under which the British promised to pay France more than $75 million for extraordinary operations, including doubling the number of coastal patrols.
Patel said the UK could withhold this money unless more boats are intercepted.
But can migrant boats be returned?
The British government claims that the return of boats passing through the canal would be legal in limited and specific circumstances, although it has not confirmed which ones.
At the same time, the UK could not enter French territorial waters without consent, which could cause problems, Professor Andrew Serdy, Professor of Public International Law and Ocean Governance at the University of Southampton (England) told the BBC.
“If France doesn’t want to force the boats to retreat, nobody can force it to do so,” explains Serdy.
Walsh says it’s not clear how this policy would be implemented because France’s cooperation is needed.
“Without this cooperation it is very difficult to imagine how the boats can turn around,” the analyst said.
It is also unclear whether the UK’s tactics would be legal under international law.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that countries are obligated to “give assistance to anyone at sea at risk of being lost.”
Under international law, the UK must determine the risks each migrant faces on a boat before forcing him out of the water, explains James Turner, a lawyer specializing in maritime disputes to the BBC.
‘Death in water’
The tactic of forcing ships to retreat has never been used in the English Channel before, but it has been used in the Mediterranean, said the Union for Borders, Immigration and Customs (ISU), a union representing UK border, immigration and customs officials. .
Lucy Moreton of ISU said she would be “very surprised” if the UK adopted such a strategy, describing it as “death in the water”.
“There are understandably many limitations, and you can’t do that with any vessel that is vulnerable.”
Many migrants from these “vulnerable” vessels are rescued by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), a non-profit organization that operates off the coast of Great Britain, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
“We will always come to the aid of those in distress at sea, as we have done since our founding in 1824. We will continue to operate [resgates] when entrusted to us by the British Coast Guard, which initiates and coordinates search and rescue,” an RNLI spokesman told BBC News Mundo.
“When we launch our lifeboats, we operate in accordance with international maritime law, which states that we are permitted, and indeed are required to, enter all waters, regardless of territory, for search and rescue purposes.”
“And when it comes to rescuing people trying to cross the English Channel, we don’t question why they got into trouble, who they are or where they come from. All we need to know is that they need our help.”
- If they are in UK national waters, they are likely to be taken to a British port.
- If they are in international waters, the UK will work with French authorities to decide where to take them.
- Every country has search and rescue zones.
- A European Union law called Dublin III allows asylum seekers to be transferred back to the first member state they entered, but the UK is no longer part of this agreement and has not agreed on a new one to replace it.
Patel met with his French counterpart on Wednesday to discuss the immigration crisis, but they were unable to reach an agreement.
In a tweet, the British minister said the negotiations were constructive. “I made it clear that getting results and stopping (channel) crossings was a priority for the British people,” she said.
But Darmanin said employing retreat tactics “would run the risk of negatively affecting our cooperation.”
French deputy Pierre-Henri Dumont, who represents Calais (a French city from whose surroundings many boats with migrants leave) declared that “nothing” can prevent boat crossings, due to the size of the French coast.
“We have between 300 and 400 kilometers of coastline to monitor every day and night and it’s impossible to have police every 100 meters due to the length of the coastline,” he explained.
Several NGOs have asked the UK Home Office to take a “more humane and responsible approach” to asylum seekers.
Amnesty International has stated that people have a right to seek asylum in the UK and that “they take dangerous journeys and depend on traffickers because there are no safe alternatives available to them”.
“A small minority of global refugees find safety and want to rebuild their lives in the UK because they have a family and a community here,” Tim Naor Hilton, executive director of the British NGO Refugee Action, told BBC News World.
“The government must provide safer alternatives such as family reunion plans, humanitarian visas and a long-term commitment to resettle 10,000 refugees a year.”
“Most people in the UK believe we should provide shelter to those in need. And we’ve seen a palpable shift in public opinion since the tragedy in Afghanistan, with donations to charities, housing offers and calls to treat refugees with dignity that they deserve it,” Hilton added.
The Refugee Council, a British group that works with refugees and asylum seekers, called for measures to help migrants.
“Instead of wasting time, resources and immense effort to drive away these vulnerable people, this government must give people safe route options to prevent these dangerous journeys in the first place.”
“We urge this administration to reconsider its brutal policies and to think about individual lives at the center of these desperate journeys.”
Walsh, from Oxford University, tells BBC News Mundo that, according to a survey by the Ministry of the Interior, almost all migrants who cross the channel and request asylum in the UK do so because they already have a family in the country, according to the perception of that it is a peaceful and tolerant nation, and the fact that English is the spoken language.
“In many cases, migrants themselves have no choice; smugglers decide for them,” he argues.
He also believes that this issue is of great concern to British citizens, but too complex for the government to address, which might rather use it “as a symbolic thing to make political rhetoric”.
The British government said it continues to evaluate and test a variety of safe and legal options to find ways to prevent small vessels from making the journey through the canal.
It also noted that it needs to use all possible tactics at its disposal to combat human trafficking.
Patel has spoken on several occasions about organized crime gangs smuggling people into the UK, and that the new Nationality and Borders Bill aims to “break their business model”.
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