France says it wants to strike a deal with the UK on Channel crossings that would combine returns and resettlement. UK officials continue to focus on combatting “illegal migration” via deterrence and criminalisation of people on the move. After promising to resettle 20,000 people from Afghanistan, resettlement spaces are being filled with people already in Britain as the Home Office faces criticism for high accommodation costs. Activists in Calais are occupying a 10-storey building to protest the persistent French evictions of makeshift camps. In parallel, 32 NGOs have denounced ongoing “mistreatment and violence” against refugees resulting from Franco-British cooperation.

French president Emmanuel Macron says he is seeking an agreement between the UK and France on Channel crossings. Reportedly, this would involve France accepting some returns from Britain, in exchange for a British commitment to accept an equal number of asylum seekers from France. The possibility of the UK assessing claims on French soil has also been floated. Any deal however would likely require UK-EU negotiations. According to the French president, the UK bears responsibility for deaths in the Channel due to its deliberate lack of legal immigration routes. “The British continue to have a system from the 1980s, which manages economic immigration through hypocrisy,” Macron told media. In the UK parliament, home secretary Priti Patel has been forced to acknowledge that the UK does not offer lawful pathways to protection for asylum seekers from countries other than Syria and Afghanistan. Patel defended this policy, saying the vast majority of people of other nationalities are “economic migrants”. However, the Home Office’s own figures refute this claim. Protection rates at second instance are roughly 84 per cent for Eritreans, and 70 per cent for Yemenites and Sudanese nationals, representing just some of the many countries in question.

Despite Macron’s pre-election push for renewed UK-France cooperation, the Financial Times reports that the UK is “refusing to negotiate with the EU” and remains committed to a “harsh deterrent approach”. This hard-line approach faced a setback on 8 February when the Court of Appeal threw out seven more cases of asylum seekers charged with “small boat smuggling”. The Court emphasised that, under current law, irregular arrival at UK borders to seek asylum is not unlawful. Nonetheless, the Home Office continues to frame forced displacement as a security issue. After a meeting on “issues related to Afghanistan”, Priti Patel tweeted that the UK would focus on: “cracking down on illegal migration and serious organised crimes – helping us protect the UK public”. Patel has in the past lambasted “criminal smuggling gangs” as responsible for Channel journeys. ECRE member organisation the Refugee Council notes: “If the Government is serious about saving lives and tackling smuggling gangs, it must invest in expanding safe routes for refugees to get to the UK”. On 10 February, the French coastguard rescued 36 people from a dinghy in distress.

Home Office plans for formalised pushbacks in the Channel continue to face roadblocks. On 2 February, the Ministry of Defence, Royal Navy, and Royal Marines said that they “will not be using push back tactics in the English Channel” [sic]. Nonetheless, “a military commander will retain the existing ability to instruct Border Force to use them when appropriate”.  Meanwhile, there are reports of Home Office plans to “draft new laws to reject the asylum claims of Channel migrants within two weeks”. According to The Times, officials insist such a policy is necessary because “asylum seekers have become immune to detainment and deportation policies due to international laws”.

The revelation that 6,500 Afghans already in the UK have been diverted to a scheme that promised to resettle refugees from the Taliban-controlled country has provoked outrage. The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), announced in August, committed to resettling 20,000 people over five years. The announcement that the 5,000 promised first-year places have been entirely filled with evacuees already present in the UK has been called a “betrayal” by campaigners. The Refugee Council notes that this approach leaves people desperate to escape Afghanistan “with no choice but to embark on dangerous journeys, exploited by people smugglers, to find safety”. Reportedly, the decision was prompted by the “huge cost” of housing refugees. The Home Office has admitted to spending 4.7 million per day on hotel accommodation for some 37,000 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, including about 12,000 evacuees.

Since 6 February, activists in Calais have been occupying disused buildings which they say should serve as accommodation for more than 1,500 people on the move sleeping rough in the region. The occupation responds to the French policy of persistent evictions of squats and makeshift camps. According to the organisers: “The State enforces conditions of extreme precariousness and invisibilisation through illegal evictions every 48 hours, theft of personal effects by the police, illegal dismantling without the possibility of defending themselves before a judge, recurrent police violence” [sic]. In order to “break the vicious cycle of state and police violence and dehumanisation” the groups are demanding an end to all evictions; action against police harassment of people on the move; the regularisation of squats; and the requisition of empty buildings to house people in transit. People occupying a 10 storey-building, reportedly empty for more than a year, say they are “besieged” by hostile police. The prefecture of Calais has requested an eviction warrant.

32 French civil society organisations have denounced Franco-British agreements that “externalise the UK border to Calais”. In an editorial for Le Monde, they say the Touquet agreements, signed 19 years ago, have resulted in a de facto policy of “mistreatment and violence” against people on the move. According to the organisations, which include Médecins sans frontières France, Secours catholique-Caritas France, Médecins du monde, at least 342 people have died at the border since 1999, including 36 last year. The editorial calls for a far-reaching citizen’s dialogue to determine “policies that respect the rights of all”.

For further information:

Photo by Luke Moss on Unsplash. 

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