Behind Boris Johnson’s suggestions after the Channel drownings that France was not doing enough to stop small boat crossings lies a more complex picture. There is a growing feeling among charities and the French political class that police, security and law enforcement alone cannot solve the problem of refugees risking their lives to reach the UK to seek asylum.
Over the past year, with the increase in the number of attempted crossings by small craft on the perilous Channel sea lanes, there has been a significant increase in policing and patrols along the French coast, with new surveillance equipment, reservists called up and more than 600 police and constables working around the clock – increasingly at night – to patrol a rugged 40-mile coastline. British funding has already contributed to new technologies and increased numbers of officers. In addition, asylum seekers who sleep on the streets are moved at night, with tents and sleeping bags confiscated and camps dismantled.
Asylum seekers who have made the boat trip over the past 18 months have described a heavy police presence on the beaches, and attempts have been regularly made to stop people launching small boats.
An Iranian refugee who traveled to the UK late last year said he made three attempts to leave by boat, each of which was stopped by French police, before his group managed to escape police attention and successfully walk away on his fourth attempt. On one occasion the police came because they heard the sound of passengers screaming and asking to be allowed to disembark, after having doubts about the quality of the ship in which they were being asked to travel. On the second and third attempts, the police arrived with torches and confiscated the boats before they could launch. “We weren’t detained by the police, they just made us leave the beach and go back to the jungle, following us for a while to make sure we really left,” the refugee said.
The photo on the front pages of some British newspapers this week, which appeared to show a French police vehicle standing still on a French beach as a migrant dinghy entered the sea, reinforced the insistence of British politicians that the police were essential. A reporter on the ground said the patrol car circled around as if trying to stop the dinghy from leaving when a woman and child got in its way.
France says its forces have stopped 65% of attempted crossings in recent months, up from 50% previously. French opposition politicians are increasingly looking beyond the security crackdown and demanding a review of asylum policy and the renegotiation of the 2003 Le Touquet accord which effectively placed the UK border on the French side of the Channel. French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin suggested on Thursday that the UK should focus first on its labor market and the bosses who employ illegal labour.
Nicolas Laroye worked for 12 years for the French border police along the north coast, as an officer in Dunkirk for 20 years, and is a union officer for the UNSA Police union on the issue of small boats. He said: “It’s a 60 km coastal strip that goes all the way to the Belgian border. It is very difficult to patrol as the beaches are fringed by large sand dunes, where people can hide at night, emerging once the patrols have passed. The only real solution would be to put a cord along the entire length of the rib, but of course that is not possible. Over the past year, there has been a noticeable increase in Franco-British resources and cooperation: 4×4 cars, kits such as night vision and thermal binoculars, and retired officers coming in as reservists. He said: “When you see the number of my colleagues who have waded into shallow waters to save women, children and young people – and many lives have been saved – the deaths this week are catastrophic.”
Olivier Cahn, professor of law and criminal sciences at Cergy Paris University who has spent 20 years studying the issue of borders and Franco-British police cooperation, said: “It is an illusion to think that strict police control and increasing repression will solve the problem. For 20 years, this has only increased the smugglers’ price for passage.
He said it was the joint crackdown by British and French security to seal off Calais port and tunnel with fencing and police ‘similar to securing a nuclear air base’, in reaction to truck crossings , which had pushed people to try more dangerous small-boat crossings in recent years.