France criticises UK for lack of co-ordination over English Channel migrant crossings

The country carries out the most deportations in the EU

A Royal National Lifeboat Institution vessel makes its way towards migrants travelling in an inflatable boat across the English Channel. AFP
Powered by automated translation

A French report said on Thursday that the UK is not sufficiently co-ordinating with the country in efforts to reduce the number of migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats.

Pointing to the “uncertain effectiveness” of illegal migration policies, the report published by France's Court of Accounts, said the country is “struggling to develop operational co-operation arrangements” with the UK.

The report drew attention to a joint intelligence unit created to fight human smuggling and reduce the number of people risking their lives to cross the Channel illegally, which helped to dismantle seven illegal migration networks in 2022.

The court “found that the British don't provide usable information on the departures of small boats, and give very general, first-level information that has not been counter-checked”.

Information on the circumstances in which migrants arrive and their nationalities “appears to be very patchy”, the report said.

“The relationship between France and the UK is therefore unbalanced in terms of information and intelligence exchange.”

Britain’s Home Office said Thursday that the report “is based on out-of-date information and does not accurately reflect our current working relationship, including intelligence sharing, with France”.

“In the last two years, we have taken more robust action alongside them to crack down on vile people-smuggling gangs and stop the boats,” it said in a statement.

“We continue to work closely with French partners at all levels, helping to drive forward improvements in the prevention of crossing attempts, both on the beaches and long before they reach them.”

The UK Defence Ministry estimated that crossings of the English Channel by boat increased by at least 58 per cent between 2021 and 2022. During that 12-month period, more than 45,000 migrants arrested on British shores.

The report said 56 per cent of crossing attempts were prevented that same year – unchanged from the year before.

France in recent years has stepped up efforts to prevent migrants from crossing the Channel, including through more police, equipment and facilities.

The country received 222 million ($243 million) from the UK from 2018 to 2022 as part of a bilateral agreement and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last March promised 541 million for the 2023-2026 period.

The number of people living illegally in France is unknown, but researchers from the Pew Research Centre estimated their numbers in 2017 to be between 300,000 and 400,000, in a country of 67 million inhabitants. This is about three times fewer migrants with no legal status than in the UK and Germany.

The Court of Account's report assessed a series of other issues related to illegal immigration policies, which were subject to 133 changes in law in the past decade.

It pointed to the difficulty of enforcing orders to leave the national territory, despite France engaging in the most deportations in the EU. More than 150,000 such decisions were made in 2022 and only 10 per cent of the concerned people actually left, it said.

Amid recent debate over an immigration bill that focused largely on how to speed up the deportation process, the report said that “international comparisons suggest that a change of scale is not realistic” regarding such policies.

Migrants arriving in Europe – in pictures

UK authorities sent back about 3,500 people to their home countries and Germany sent back about 13,000 people in 2022, according to statistics gathered by the French Interior Ministry.

Reasons listed in the report include French authorities' difficulty to prove the identity of the concerned migrants, reluctance from home countries to issue authorisation to let them in, and refusal by commercial airlines and plane pilots to take them on board.

The Court of Account instead suggested enacting policies that would encourage migrants to voluntarily move back to their home countries by offering them money.

Such policies have been proven to have “significant efficiency”, the court said, noting that France is lagging behind the UK and Germany in that respect.

Pierre Moscovici, head of the Court of Account, said on Thursday that the body also recommends a better organisation of border guards and police to make them more efficient, noting that more people are illegally crossing the border, mostly from Italy and Spain, in recent years.

Irregular immigration costs France about 1.8 billion each year and involves 16,000 state employees, police and military, the court said.

Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni told EU partners on Thursday that curbing migration flows from African countries has less to do with offers of charity than strong partnerships coupled with strategic investments in those nations.

Ms Meloni told reporters that last month's deal on the EU's Migration and Asylum Pact partially improved the situation for Italy and other asylum countries, but does not represent a solution to increasing migrant arrivals.

“What needs to be done in Africa is not charity,” she said.

“What needs to be done in Africa is to build co-operation and serious strategic relationships as equals, not predators.”

Ms Meloni also stressed the need “to defend the right not to have to emigrate … and this is done with investments and a strategy”.

She also said that supporting Africa’s development and the dangers posed by artificial intelligence will be among the key themes for Italy during its one-year presidency of the Group of Seven, which Rome took over at the start of January.

Italy outlined its proposed strategy in Africa in the so-called Mattei Plan – named after Enrico Mattei, founder of state-controlled oil and gas giant Eni – which seeks to expand co-operation beyond energy.

Ms Meloni said the plan includes specific projects, but stopped short of providing details, stating they will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

“The data on migration are not satisfying, especially considering the amount of work we dedicated to that,” Ms Meloni said. She added that she would continue to work with African countries to prevent illegal migrant departures.

“My goal is to work in Africa, block the departures in Africa, evaluate the possibility to open up hotspots there to establish who has the right and who does not to come to Europe,” Ms Meloni explained.

“At the same time, we'll work on legal migration.”

Updated: January 05, 2024, 7:10 AM