France rejects UK’s ‘unacceptable’ proposals to stop migrant crossings

British PM wants joint patrols, which would see British vessels in French waters

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France has told Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel to stay away from an international summit on tackling migrant crossings after rejecting Boris Johnson’s five-point plan for resolving the English Channel migrant crisis following the deaths of 27 people at sea this week.

The UK Prime Minister laid out his plan in a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday, which he posted on Twitter, in a move branded “unacceptable” by the French leader. "I am surprised by methods when they are not serious," said Mr Macron. "One leader does not communicate with another on these questions on Twitter, by public letter. We are not whistle-blowers. No, No."

Mr Johnson's late night missive proposed joint patrols comprising British and French border officials along France’s northern coast, insisting “we must go further and faster, together” to tackle the migrant crisis. Mr Johnson also proposed a bilateral returns agreement with France, to allow migrants who have travelled to the UK illegally to be sent back across the Channel, alongside talks to establish a UK-EU returns agreement.

French newspaper Le Monde predicted the move would mark a turning point in relations between Paris and London. “France is no longer making a secret of its exasperation at the attitude of the British authorities on this issue, accusing the United Kingdom of duplicity,” it said. “The British ideas would lead, according to Paris, to a permanent double game by continuing on the technical level a work of sometimes fruitful co-operation, while delivering messages that play politics with the situation.”

Ms Patel had been scheduled to head to Calais on Sunday to meet her French counterpart Gerald Darmanin and other officials after the drowning of 27 migrants, including pregnant women and children, on Wednesday.

“We consider the British Prime Minister’s public letter unacceptable and contrary to our discussions between counterparts,” the French Interior Ministry was quoted as saying. “Therefore, Priti Patel is no longer invited on Sunday to the interministerial meeting whose format will be: France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and European Commission.”

The UK Home Office declined to comment.

Ms Patel was due to send officials and law enforcement officers to Paris on Friday to intensify co-operation and intelligence sharing.

Dr Ben Greening, Executive Director of Migration Watch UK, called the UK-France spat a “shambles” and said it had sprung up “as a result of the mess that’s been allowed to take root” in the Channel.

He said both sides were to blame for a lack of decisive action in recent months which could have prevented migrants from undertaking the perilous journey. However, he said the UK government in particular is responsible for an “abysmal failure” to step up to the plate and put measures in place to stop small boats from illegally crossing the sea.

“The horrendous tragedy we saw a couple of days ago was, very sadly, predictable because we knew that these routes were dangerous,” Dr Greening told The National.

“People had already died before that, and yet the combined incompetence of the governments of France and the UK have allowed this situation to get worse before our very eyes.”

Some 6,878 people have crossed the Channel in small boats since the start of November, according to figures from Migration Watch, bringing the overall total for this year to 26,631. This is more than three times the total for last year when 8,461 people landed on British soil after making the voyage from northern France.

Johnson's tactics

Mr Johnson’s plan to stop migrants travelling from France to Britain in small boats includes the use of advanced technology, such as sensors and radar to track smugglers and migrants.

He also proposed joint or reciprocal maritime patrols in each country’s territorial waters, and airborne surveillance by manned flights and drones.

And he said the Joint Intelligence Cell would be improved with better real-time intelligence sharing to deliver more arrests and prosecutions on both sides of the Channel.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that in recent years British authorities have become “much better at detecting people in lorries” coming into the country, therefore cutting this off as a viable option for illegal migration.

However, he noted this has led to more people choosing sea crossings, which are “unbelievably dangerous”, and he said after this week’s tragedy French authorities had been undertaking “more active control” of the problem.

Asked why the UK did not agree a plan to tackle this with the EU when Brexit negotiations were taking place, he told Sky News: “I think it’s a mistake to think it wasn’t happening before, it’s been happening for many, many years.

“It’s the route that’s changed and that’s why the Prime Minister has written to Macron with five different ideas which could help redouble the efforts, and an invitation to meet up to discuss it as well.”

He said the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which is making its way through Parliament, was designed to address “what the French call the 'pull factors' to the UK”.

Mr Johnson’s letter came after President Macron said he was requesting “extra help” from the UK on Thursday.

The group of migrants had been making their way to the UK on an inflatable dingy when it was reportedly struck by a large container ship and began to sink.

Two survivors, of Iraqi and Somali origin, have been treated in hospital for severe hypothermia.

Mr Johnson called for “urgent progress” on joint patrols of UK Border Force officers and French gendarmes, or the joint deployment of private security contractors.

“We are ready to begin such patrols from the start of next week and to scale up thereafter,” he said.

Updated: November 26, 2021, 3:18 PM