Behind Boris Johnson’s suggestions, in the wake of the Channel drownings, that France was not doing enough to stop small boat crossings, lies a more complex picture. There is a growing sense among charities and the French political class that policing, security and repression alone cannot solve the issue of refugees risking their life to reach the UK to claim asylum.
In the past year, with rising numbers of attempted small boat crossings across the perilous shipping lanes of the Channel, there has been a significant increase in policing and patrols along the French coast, with new surveillance equipment, reservists called in, and more than 600 police officers and gendarmes working 24 hours a day – increasingly at night – to patrol a 40-mile stretch of rugged coast. UK financing has already contributed to new technology and an increase in officers. In addition, asylum seekers sleeping rough are moved on nightly, with tents and sleeping bags confiscated and camps broken up.
Asylum seekers who have made the journey by boat in the past 18 months have described a strong police presence on the beaches, and attempts were regularly made to prevent people from launching small boats.
An Iranian refugee who travelled to the UK late last year said he had made three attempts to leave in a boat, each of which was stopped by French police, before his group managed to evade police attention and successfully depart on their fourth attempt. On one occasion, the police came because they heard the noise of passengers screaming and asking to be allowed to disembark, after they had second thoughts about the quality of the vessel they were being asked to travel in. On the second and third attempt, police arrived with torches, and confiscated the boats before they were able to launch. “We weren’t detained by the police, they would just make us walk away from the beach back to the Jungle, following us for a while to make sure we were really leaving,” the refugee said.
The picture on some UK newspaper front pages this week, which appeared to show a French police vehicle standing still on a French beach while a dinghy of migrants entered the sea, increased UK politicians’ insistence that policing was key. A reporter on the ground said the patrol car had circled as if to attempt to stop the dinghy leaving when a woman and child had stepped into its path.
France says its forces have stopped 65% of attempted crossings in recent months, up from 50%. French opposition politicians are increasingly looking beyond the security crackdown and demanding a review of asylum policy and renegotiation of the 2003 Le Touquet agreement that effectively placed the British border on the French side of the Channel. The French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, suggested on Thursday that the UK should look first at its labour market and the bosses who employ illegal labour.
Nicolas Laroye has worked for the French border police along the northern coast for 12 years, as an officer in Dunkirk for 20 years, and is trade union official for the UNSA Police union on the small boats issue. He said: “This is a 60km stretch of coast running to the Belgian border. It is very hard to patrol because the beaches are bordered by substantial sand dunes, where people can hide at night, emerging once patrols have passed. The only real solution would be to put a cordon the whole length of the coast, but of course that’s not possible. In the past year there has been a noticeable increase in resources, and French-British cooperation: 4×4 cars, kit such as night vision binoculars and thermic binoculars, and retired officers coming in as reservists.” He said: “When you see the number of my colleagues who wade into shallow waters to save women, children and young people – and a lot of lives have been saved – this week’s deaths are catastrophic.”
Olivier Cahn, professor of law and criminal science at Cergy Paris University who has spent 20 years studying the border issue and French-British police cooperation, said: “It is an illusion to think that strictly controlling policing and increasing repression will resolve the problem. For 20 years, all that has done is increase traffickers’ price for a passage.”
He said it was the joint British and French security crackdown to seal off the Calais port and tunnel with fencing and policing “akin to securing a nuclear airbase”, in reaction to lorry crossings, that had pushed people to try more dangerous crossings by small boat in recent years.