Britain prepares to force back migrant boats crossing the Channel, spurring war of words with France

Britain prepares to force back migrant boats crossing the Channel, spurring war of words with France

Britain is preparing to turn back small migrant boats crossing the English Channel, according to numerous media reports, as an influx of undocumented migrants this week sparked another war of words between London and Paris.

British Border Force staff are being trained to employ turnaround tactics that force boats back into French waters, despite warnings from Paris that such moves could endanger lives. London has agreed to the use of such tactics, although operational details were pending, the BBC reported, citing an unidentified official.

It was unclear whether the measures included taking migrants back to French shores. Britain would only push boats back in “very certain, narrow circumstances,” the official said.

The decision, which came as British Home Secretary Priti Patel met with her French counterpart, Gérald Darmanin, in London on Wednesday, is likely to further strain ties between the two countries.

The Home Office declined to comment about what it called “maritime operational activity,” although it confirmed that it was working on legal and safe means to deter migrant boats from crossing the Channel. There are significant legal questions about Britain’s ability to return undocumented migrants to France after the country left the European Union this year.

Patel had earlier sparked a stern rebuttal from France after she indicated Britain could withhold some $74 million in funding it had pledged to help its continental neighbor stem the flow of migrants crossing the Channel. In return, France had agreed to increase border patrols and deploy more surveillance technology, according to reports at that time.

The French Interior Ministry on Tuesday warned Britain not to attempt any action that was contrary to international law, saying there would be “consequences” if it refused to hand over the cash.

Over the past few years, an increasing number of migrants have tried to cross the Channel to Britain, defying warnings of the dangers of undertaking such a journey in one of the busiest maritime areas in the world. In August, a migrant died after a boat the person was on started sinking in the Channel.

In August, a record 828 migrants crossed the Channel in a single day. This year, 13,500 migrants have crossed the Channel in small boats, more than in the whole of 2020.

Patel, who is charged with delivering two of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s key electoral pledges — controlling immigration and recruiting 20,000 extra police officers — is under increasing pressure from fellow Conservative Party lawmakers over the crossings. The Times of London on Wednesday reported that complaints from other parliamentarians could lead to her demotion.

“I made clear that delivering results and stopping crossings were an absolute priority for the British people,” Patel wrote on Twitter after meeting with Darmanin.

Conservative lawmakers had earlier pushed Patel to forcibly return anyone who attempted to cross the Channel without permission — a proposal condemned by Pierre-Henri Dumont, the French center-right lawmaker whose constituency includes the port city of Calais.

Brexit doesn’t mean that Britain has left the international community,” he tweeted. “This suggestion tears apart the U.N. Geneva convention giving the right to everyone to apply to any country for asylum.”

Calais remains a congregation point for migrants hoping to cross the English Channel, more than four years after French authorities demolished a sprawling migrant camp there that had become a squalid symbol of Europe’s failure to manage waves of migration. The migrants included people fleeing war-torn areas and seeking refuge on European shores.

Between Sunday night and Wednesday, the French Maritime Prefecture in charge of the Channel said it undertook 11 rescue operations involving 198 “castaways.” The likely migrants were dropped off at the nearby fishing port of Boulogne-sur-Mer, where they were taken care of by rescue services personnel and border police officers.

Darmanin, the French interior minister, has previously called for European air surveillance to help stem the flow of clandestine migration from other parts of Europe. During a visit to Calais in July, he told reporters that about 60 percent of migrants come to France from Belgium.

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