Explained: Why France is angry with Britain over migrant crossings

The war of words between France and the UK over migrant crossings seems to be getting increasingly ill-tempered. Here's what each side is complaining about.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin shakes with law enforcement officers during a visit to northern France.
French interior minister Gérald Darmanin visits law enforcement officers in northern France. Photo by FRANCOIS LO PRESTI / AFP

What is happening?

A total of more than 1,000 migrants crossed the channel from France to England on Friday and Saturday, just the latest in hundreds of crossing staged by migrants and asylum seekers desperate to reach the UK.

Generally undertaken in highly dangerous conditions in small boats, the crossing represents the final stage of the journey for people who have travelled thousands of miles from countries including Afghanistan and Syria to reach the UK, going through Europe and then crossing by sea to the UK.

They usually aim to cross at the shortest point, from the northern French coastline around Calais towards Dover and the south coast of England, just 33km away.

This is a long-standing issue and over the years France and the UK have tried various different joint approaches to tackling the problem.

A total of 15,400 people attempted to cross the Channel in the first eight months of this year, a increase of 50 percent over the figure for the whole of 2020, according to French coast guard statistics.

Why the row?

In short, the UK believes that France is not doing enough to stop the crossings, while France says the UK has broken its promise to finance anti-trafficking measures.

Under an agreement reached in July, Britain agreed to finance border security in France to the tune of €62.7 million.

However according to British media reports, British Home Secretary Priti Patel in September threatened to withhold the money in the light of the record numbers of migrants arriving from France.

France, meanwhile, says that the promised money has not been paid.

Patel’s opposite number, France’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin, said: “The (British) government has not yet paid what it promised us.

“We call on the British to keep their promise of financing since we are maintaining the border for them”.

What is France doing?

Over the past three months France has stopped 65 percent of attempted crossings by illegal immigrants, up from 50 percent, the interior minister said.

The French side has hired more gendarmes, purchased more technological equipment and thereby “succeeded in greatly reducing migratory pressure”, he added.

“France has held the border for our British friends for over 20 years,” said Darmanin. France is “an ally of Britain” but “not its vassal”, he said.

The northern coastline is just one aspect of border policing for France, which also has to deal with migrant crossings on its Mediterranean coast and over land.

READ ALSO: French police cause misery for migrants in Calais

So what next?

On a practical level, Darmanin said that he had received assurances from the director of the European border surveillance agency Frontex, that it will be prepared by the end of the year to monitor the coastal area, notably through aerial surveillance. 

However the row between France and the UK is also about politics and the post-Brexit fallout.

Darmanin on Saturday called for the start of negotiations for a migration treaty between the European Union and Britain.

“We need to negotiate a treaty, since Mr (Michel) Barnier did not do so when he negotiated Brexit, which binds us on migration issues,” the interior minister said, adding that France will champion the project when it takes over the EU’s rotating presidency in January.

Barnier, who is now running for president in France, was the EU’s Brexit negotiator during the fraught talks on a deal to cover relations with the UK after it left the European Union.

READ ALSO: France warns Britain against ‘blackmail’ over migrant crossings

Member comments

  1. If France can’t secure its own borders perhaps they should ask Border Force UK to do it for them. They certainly need to do something as allowing the present free-for-all makes a mockery of the visa system.

    1. It’d be interesting to watch UK Border Force officers trying to patrol the high Alpine or Pyrenean borders in winter … I wonder how many of them have ever seen a snow chain in their lives …

        1. You were talking about ‘France securing its borders’ with ‘borders’ in the plural. Apart from the UK border, France obviously borders Spain and Italy.

  2. The French are doing there best against what is a mass invasion.
    The problem for the French is that they are part of Shengan area – so migrants enter the EU and walk into France as there are no borders
    The EU cannot secure their borders – once migrants have crossed they can go where they like
    Migrants can claim asylum in the country of their choice – the issue to me is – how can applications be processed without them crossing the water in a dingy.
    Those who have successful applications can then cross safely as a foot passenger on a ferry

    1. It’s plain nonsense to claim they can go where they want. All migrants are in France illegally. Consequently, it’s for the French authorities to arrest them and then either grant asylum or deport them. The migrants don’t want to claim asylum in France because that would stop them applying in Britain and it would seem the French don’t want to force the issue.

  3. Did anyone think about who caused the problems in Syria in the first place? The major culprit is the USA.

  4. I watched French television on the 11.10.20211 and it showed French police watching as migrants were loading a dingy did not do anything. One migrant said the police don’t try to stop them. The French expect to get paid for this. Rosie

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.