As channel crossings pass 40,000, setting new record, a new agreement with France is deemed insufficient by politicians and denounced by NGOs as a recycling of prior failed deals. French investigation reveals lack of response by UK and France before deadly tragedy on the channel in November 2021 and could lead to criminal charges.

According to the UK government, 972 people crossed the channel on 12 November, bringing the total in 2022 to 40,885. Throughout 2021, a total of 28,526 crossings were recorded, marking the previous record. By making a decrease of arrivals, a key objective the UK government has come under a self-imposed pressure for results and on 14 November a new agreement with France was signed to enhance “co-operation against illegal migration”. The UK has “committed to a financial investment of up to €72.2 million in 2022 to 2023” to fund a joint strategy covering a variety of initiatives in France, UK and “near neigbours” including joint intelligence, increased patrols and deployments, surveillance technology, deterrence and voluntary return measures. With the new agreement, the UK has committed a total of more than £ 232 million to French authorities to prevent crossings but politicians across the aisle remain unconvinced and NGOs denounce its recycling of past failures: “This deal is just the same as previous deals – spending money and resources on intercepting and obstructing people crossing the Channel while doing nothing to address their need for safe access to an asylum system”, said Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, adding: “The inevitable result will be more dangerous journeys and more profits led by ruthless smuggling gangs and other serious criminals exploiting the refusal of the UK and French governments to take and share responsibility”.

The lack of responsibility by British and French authorities was on full display on 24 November 2021 when a boat capsized on the Channel in a deadly tragedy where more than 30 lives were lost. While UK authorities have reportedly refused to release information on the incident, French authorities investigating the circumstances have disclosed their call-log revealing more than 20 distress calls to British and French coastguards during 9 hours before response. “Some were calling French police continuously; others called the UK nonstop. French police told them they were in UK water, so they were not permitted to help,” a family member of a victim told media, adding: “UK police said to wait, and they’ll come to that location” but no one came.  Delphine Rouilleault, Director General for ECRE member, France Terre d’Asile stated: “What is described is a complete lack of cooperation for rescue operations and their trivialization, which means no one grasped the danger for these people”. Lydie Arbogast from Cimade commented, saying it is: “very worrying to see that both sides, French and British, went to great lengths to show that it was up to the other side to take responsibility for the search and rescue”. According to Le Monde, the investigation by French maritime police could lead to criminal charges against French rescue services: “the officers of the Cherbourg (Normandy) maritime police focused on the behavior of the Gris-Nez CROSS in Pas-de-Calais, the department responsible for organizing the rescue of boats in difficulty during crossings to England. They recommended “additional investigations” to shed light on “facts that could be classified as criminal, such as failure to assist persons in distress”.

One year after the deadly tragedy, little has changed in Calais on the French side of the channel, where people hoping to cross remain in makeshift camps under dire conditions. Reportedly, around 500 people – the majority single men are scattered around makeshift camps in and around Calais, and another 1,000 people including families near Grande-Synthe, west of Dunkirk. “The camps are spread across the city, basically because the police have created a hostile environment,” says Care4Calais coordinator, Lucy Halliday also pointing out: “Until recently there was a food ban – meaning no organisation was allowed to distribute even a cup of water within the town boundaries”. According to Halliday: “Some people are only here a couple of days. Some people have been here for a couple of years,” adding: “On average, if they’re trying to cross by lorry, they’re going to be here six months. If they’re crossing by boat, they move a bit quicker”. Journalist, Steven Mackenzie reporting in Calais for the Big Issue ends his account with the following statement: “I visited Calais on Friday October 28. On Saturday, 990 migrants made it across the Channel… Almost reaching that 1,000 figure in one day gave elements of the press and maniacs on social media an excuse to attack asylum seekers. On Sunday, an inevitable escalation as a man threw homemade petrol bombs at the immigration centre in Dover”.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.