Johnson leads emergency meeting with Macron on English Channel migrant deaths

Migrants are brought ashore after having crossed the channel, in Dungeness, Britain, on Nov 24, 2021.
Migrants are brought ashore after having crossed the channel, in Dungeness, Britain, on Nov 24, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Boris Johnson accused France of not doing enough to stop migrants from trying to get to the UK from northern France, after a boat capsized in the Channel killing 27 people on Wednesday (Nov 24).

"We've had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves," Mr Johnson told broadcasters. He said the UK is willing to provide more support to help France patrol its northern beaches to prevent boats leaving.

More than 25,000 people are estimated to arrived in the UK in small boats this year, about three times as many as in 2020. Mr Johnson faces intense pressure to halt the dangerous crossings, which line the pockets of people smugglers.

Yet Mr Johnson's comments risk angering France at a sensitive time in their post-Brexit relationship, which has been strained by tensions on a range of issues from defence to the granting of fishing licenses.

In a call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday, the two leaders "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 arrived in northern France, Mr Johnson's office said in a statement.

In its own response to the tragedy, the French government focused on the human suffering, with Mr Macron saying his government "will never let the Channel become a cemetery". Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the smugglers who organise crossings bear "the primary responsibility" and that France is working hard to curb illegal migration.

Speaking to reporters outside a hospital in Calais, Mr Darmanin said five women and a child were among the dead. Two people survived and one is missing.

Winter crossings

Mr Macron also called for an immediate reinforcement of Frontex, the European Union's border force, as well as an urgent meeting of the bloc's ministers in charge of migration issues. "We must accelerate the dismantling of criminal networks between the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany," he said.

While most migrants typically try to reach the UK in the summer, this year they continued into the colder months with gangs operating cut-price journeys by overcrowding the boats, according to the UK's National Crime Agency.

Those who cannot afford the fees charged by criminal gangs are using kayaks and paddling pools, and some have even tried to swim the 34 kilometres across the narrowest part of the Channel, which is the world's busiest shipping lane.

'Ruthless gangs'

"It serves as the starkest possible reminder of the dangers of these Channel crossings organised by ruthless criminal gangs," Mr Johnson said. "Unless they are shown that their business model won't work, that they can't simply get people over the Channel from France to the UK, they will continue to deceive people, to put people's lives at risk and, as I say, to get away with murder."

Home Secretary Priti Patel has come under particular scrutiny in the UK. When the government set up a cross-government review of the issue under Cabinet minister Steve Barclay, it was widely interpreted in Westminster as evidence that the prime minister is losing patience - though Mr Johnson's spokesman denied that this week.

In Parliament on Monday, opposition Labour Party spokesman Nick Thomas-Symonds accused Patel of "empty rhetoric and broken promises".

He said the UK has spent £200 million pounds (S$365 million) on deals with the French government to try to stem the flow of migrants to little effect.

Ms Patel said her planned immigration legislation will "make life harder for the criminal gangs behind these crossings" and strengthen the powers of border authorities to break up their business model.

The UK argues that asylum seekers should seek refuge in the first safe country they come to such as France, Italy or Greece - and not attempt to reach Britain.

Ms Patel said that according to French authorities, 70 per cent of people entering France and northern France in particular, and crossing the Channel are single men and economic migrants rather than refugees.

About 62 per cent of claimants who enter the asylum system in the UK have arrived illegally, according to the Home Office. France's Darmanin said this month that Britain's labour laws need an overhaul to prevent the flow of migrants.