GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 599, 28 November 2021

Europe: France-UK tensions over a migrant disaster across the English Channel
Padmashree Anandhan

What happened?
On 24 November, an inflatable yacht capsized on the beach of Calais in northern France; 27 people drowned while they were attempting to cross the English Channel to enter the UK. The Prime Minister of the UK Boris Johnson said: "We've had difficulties persuading some of our partners - particularly the French - to do things in a way in which we think the situation deserves. This is a problem we have to fix together." In response, French President Emmanuel Macron said: "France will not let the Channel become a Graveyard." He mentioned that France expects the UK to cooperate fully and abstains from instrumentalizing a tragic situation for political purposes. 

On 26 November, a diplomatic rift developed between Johnson and Macron after France denied the Calais meeting with the Home Secretary Priti Patel. Macron blamed Johnson for "not being serious" and asking France to take back migrants.

On 27 November, a Kurdish woman from northern Iraq was identified as the first victim of the mass drowning. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said: "the Agency was deeply shocked and saddened by the unprecedented tragedy that unfolded in the English Channel. In the absence of safer alternatives, people will continue to resort to such perilous journeys, and their desperation and vulnerabilities will continue to be preyed upon and exploited by ruthless smugglers."

What is the background?
First, increase in the number of crossings. The number of migrants went from 1,835 to 26,560 in the last three years, with a majority of the crossings taking place in 2021. The French government is blamed for evacuating the migrants from the camps in the name of relocating them to shelters, thereby invoking many to move into the UK through the Channel.

Second, the UK as an attractive option for migrants. The origins of these migrants are from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Albania, and other North African countries. According to the survey taken by the researchers from International Health Journal from 402 migrants in Calais Jungle camp, only 12 per cent wanted to remain in France, and the other 82 per cent opted to go to the UK. Apart from seeking better living conditions or escaping the hostile situation, there are more significant reasons for the migrants to migrate to the UK. The first influencing factor is the treatment and recognition. The UK's approval of refugee status is much more flexible and beneficial in the long term. Upon crossing the Channel, the migrants can enter the UK and claim asylum, post which they have to prove the condition of non-return. At that point, they will be granted refugee status that lasts for five years, and later this becomes the base for them to settle in the UK. The second factor is connecting back with their families, thereby reestablishing ties with their culture, traditional practices, and languages.

Third, the inability of France and the UK to find an answer. Regarding the state response, both the UK and French leaders have not come forward to take in the migrants. The leaders continue to debate and clash over who will host the migrants and push them back to their homelands. While France has been a regular defaulter in allowing the migrants to flee, the UK has deployed patrol ships to send back the migrant vessels before they reach the shores. Additionally, the tensions have brimmed with France not agreeing to meet with the UK Home Secretary to resolve the situation. These actions do not reflect the responsibility of the state nor its leaders' will to resolve the issue.

What does this mean?
First, the EU negligence. With the rapid increase in migration, the absence of the involvement of regional heads to address the situation in France showcases how serious they are about the looming humanitarian crisis in the region. Second, the will of the migrants. The risks taken by the migrants to move into the UK shows the intensity and willingness of the migrants to endanger their lives and find a place for a peaceful living.

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