France and UK sign agreement to curb Channel crossings

A British Border Force vessel carrying a group of people thought to be migrants rescued after a boat incident in the Channel comes into dock in Dover, England, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. The U.K. and French interior ministers signed an agreement on Monday that will see more police patrol beaches in northern France in an attempt to stop people trying to cross the English Channel in small boats — a regular source of friction between the two countries. (Gareth Fuller/PA via AP)

PARIS — The U.K. and France signed an agreement Monday that will see more police patrol beaches in northern France in an attempt to stop migrants from trying to cross the English Channel in small boats — a regular source of friction between the two.

As scores of people were picked up and brought ashore Monday by a U.K. Border Force vessel, the British government said it had agreed to pay France $75 million in 2022-2023 — almost 10 million euros more than under an existing deal — in exchange for France increasing security patrols along the coast by 40%.

That includes 350 more gendarmes and police guarding beaches in Calais and Dunkirk, as well as more drones and night vision equipment to help officers detect unauthorized crossings.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the deal would mean “for the first time, British officials embedded in French operations to strengthen coordination and the effectiveness of our operations.”

The agreement, signed by French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and British Home Secretary Suella Braverman in Paris, contains proposals to fight crime by harvesting information from intercepted migrants to help tackle smuggling networks.

No specific target for boat interceptions was included.

The U.K. receives fewer asylum-seekers than many European nations, including Germany, France and Italy, but thousands of migrants from around the world travel to northern France each year in hopes of crossing the channel. Some want to reach the U.K. because they have friends or family there, others because they speak English or because it’s perceived to be easy to find work.

In recent years there’s been a sharp increase in the number of people attempting the journey in dinghies and other small craft as authorities clamped down on other routes such as stowing away on buses or trucks.

More than 40,000 people have arrived in Britain after making the hazardous Channel trip so far this year, up from 28,000 in all of 2021 and 8,500 in 2020.

The European Union borders and coast guard agency, Frontex, says 62,323 migrants were detected in the channel in the first 10 months of 2022, a 70% increase on the same period last year. The figure includes both successful and intercepted crossings.

Dozens have died in the attempt, including 27 people in November 2021 when a packed smuggling boat capsized.

Le Monde published a chilling investigation Monday into the French coast guard’s mismanagement of that sinking, the deadliest to date. It quoted from repeated, increasingly desperate distress calls from the boat, communications that are part of a French judicial investigation.

French coast guard officials demanded more information of the people aboard, or told them to call British emergency services instead, according to the newspaper. It quoted coast guard officials as saying they underestimated the boat’s problems because they get so many similar calls from migrant vessels in trouble, and don’t have enough resources to come to everyone’s aid.

Britain and France have long wrangled over how to stop the people-smuggling gangs that organize the journeys.

Monday’s announcement comes as Sunak, who took office three weeks ago, aims to improve relations with Britain’s neighbors, which soured under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his briefly serving successor Liz Truss.

Sunak met French President Emmanuel Macron last week at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, and the first U.K.-France summit in several years is planned for early 2023.

In another attempt to deter the crossings, Britain’s government has announced a controversial plan to send people who arrive in small boats on a one-way journey to Rwanda, to break the business model of smuggling gangs. Critics say the plan is immoral and impractical, and it is being challenged in the courts.

Critics also have slammed the British government for failing to process asylum applications quickly, leaving thousands stuck in overcrowded holding centers and temporary accommodation.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council charity in Britain, said enforcement measures would do little to stop the cross-channel traffic.

“The government must take a more comprehensive approach and create an orderly, fair and humane asylum system,” he said. “It is a global issue which will not be resolved by enforcement measures alone.”

Braverman, a champion of the Rwanda plan who has been accused by critics of demonizing migrants, acknowledged “there are no quick fixes.” But she told broadcasters that Monday’s arrangement will “significantly increase the number of French gendarmes patrolling the beaches in northern France and ensure U.K. and French officers are working hand in hand to stop the people smugglers.”