What is France doing to prevent illegal small boat crossings to UK?

Police officers patrolling a beach in northern France, passing by the wrecking of a dinghy.
Police officers patrolling a beach in northern France, passing by the wrecking of a dinghy. Record numbers of migrants crossed illegally to the UK on Thursday. (Photo by Marc SANYE / AFP)
After 31 people died after their small boat sank off the coast of northern France the British Prime Minister suggested French efforts to stop the illegal crossings were not working. We examine France's efforts to prevent refugees and migrants making this dangerous journey.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “appalled and shocked” by the tragedy on Wednesday which saw 31 people including five women and one little girl die when their small boat sank off the coast of Calais.

While leaders in both France and the UK blamed human traffickers for the tragedy Johnson also suggested efforts by the French to stop the crossings “haven’t been enough”.

Johnson said the UK was offering to send officers “to help patrol the beaches concerned, on the launching grounds for these boats.”

“That’s something I hope will be acceptable now in the view of what has happened,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron however suggested the response must come at an EU level.

Macron called for reinforcements from the EU’s external border management force Frontex and a crisis meeting of EU leaders. 

So have the French been doing enough to prevent the huge number of crossings along part of its northern coast?

What’s clear is that French authorities, police and border officers face an unprecedented and ever-worsening problem.

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See also on The Local:

An estimated 1,000 people arrived in the UK on just one day in October, crossing the Channel on small boats and makeshift rafts. 

This was the greatest number of migrants to arrive on British shores on a single day. That single-day tally surpassed the previous record of 853 set earlier in November, according to UK Home Office statistics.

The British government described these numbers as “unacceptable”. 

In recent weeks much of the British press and many politicians have blasted the French, who have been promised €63 million by the UK government to help stem migrant flows. One newspaper ran the headline: “Macron’s Migrant Shambles”. 

A source at France’s interior ministry responded to that criticism telling The Local: “The comments reported by some British media are not acceptable.

“It is unacceptable to be accused of instrumentalising migrants and condoning the activities of criminal groups, while our forces are mobilised daily to save lives.

The instrumentalisation of this subject for domestic political purposes does not help find a solution.”

The ‘historic’ agreement

In July, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin heralded a ‘historic’ agreement signed with the UK. In return for the €63 million, France promised the following:

  • to double the number of police and gendarmes patrolling along the French coastline to 200;
  • to finance border protection and surveillance equipment;
  • to detect and intercept migrants attempting to cross the Channel;
  • and to fight against human trafficking. 

In October, Darmanin accused the British of not paying the money it had promised. Although some of the €63 million has been paid, the UK has threatened to withhold further financing if large numbers of migrants continue to cross. 

Following the signing of the deal with the UK, France now employs between 600-650 police officers, gendarmes and customs agents to patrol its northern coastline – a marked increase.

At the time Darmanin also defended French efforts to protect the British border which has effectively been on the French side of the Channel since Le Touquet agreement of 2003.

France has held the border for our British friends for over 20 years,” said Darmanin.

The French side has hired more gendarmes, purchased more technological equipment and thereby “succeeded in greatly reducing migratory pressure”, he added. That included an announcement of an €11 million package of new equipment – including night-vision equipment and thermal cameras.

France is “an ally of Britain” but “not its vassal”, he said.

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

READ MORE France promises to end harsh treatment of migrants in Calais

Figures published by the French Senate showed that, despite making more than 10,000 arrests from August 2020 to August 2021 and spending €217 million in a bid to stop the crossings, French authorities have been largely unsuccessful in stopping migration towards the UK. 

The table below shows the number of successful crossings (traversées) made over the last two years compared to the number of failed crossings (Tentatives). So from August 2020 to 2021 574 crossings failed whilst 507 boats made it the UK.

The figures also revealed France had arrested or intercepted 10,522 undocumented migrants whilst 12,256 were picked up by police in the UK. 

The Senate report also said: “France considers that it is doing its maximum to monitor its coast. During its hearing, the Directorate-General for Foreigners in France (DGEF) underlined that this effort had cost France €217 million.”

It added that 600 to 650 police officers, gendarmes and border patrol officers were now monitoring a stretch of coastline and that patrols would soon be extended all the way to the Cotentin peninsular.

It added that France had appealed to the EU border management force Frontex for air support in helping monitor what was now an external border of the EU. 

The DGEF also said: “The United Kingdom was not very transparent about the fate of asylum seekers.”

To Pierre Roques, manager of Auberge des Migrants, an NGO that has been working with migrants in northern France since 2008, the current attempts by the French and the British are simply making things worse.

“It is very difficult for the police to stop people from crossing. We are talking about 150km of coastline, not a port,” he said. “The more money the UK gives to France to militarise the border, the more migrants will turn to traffickers to try to make it across – because they have no legitimate way of doing so.”

“We are facing a humanitarian crisis and need a humanitarian solution – not a military one,” Roques continued. 

French police and coastguard say they face a difficult task trying to monitor hundreds of kilometres of rugged coastline with limited resources, while people smuggling networks are growing more and more sophisticated.

The French have a policy of not intercepting boats once they are in the water, judging any attempt to stop the dinghies too dangerous because of the risk of panic or sudden movements that could capsize the vessels.

France’s interior ministry told The Local: “While the number of crossing attempts has increased significantly; the failure rate remains at a very high level, around 60 percent since the start of the year (compared to 56 percent in 2020). In addition, from January to October, 1,295 smugglers were arrested and 30 networks dismantled, up compared to the same period in 2020.

Meanwhile, the UK government is pushing through new legislation that would significantly toughen penalties against such migration, and Home Secretary Priti Patel says she is reviewing maritime tactics to deter people-smugglers.


Member comments

  1. I’m with Boggy. If the situation were reversed and illegal immigrants were clamouring to get from the UK to France, Priti Patel would be handing out Brittany Ferry tickets.

  2. Not really sure why France accepts migrants who cannot support themselves at other borders further South. Surely France’s requirement is that anyone entering France at any border should be officially acceptable to France which would have similar requirements to the UK. So how do these migrating individuals enter France in the first place then how does France allow so many undocumented individuals to travel vast distances within France in order to reach the very porous border with the UK.

    The official figures probably are a large underestimate of the numbers of illegal crossings.

    Also not clear to me why migrants would find the UK more hospitable than France.

  3. The problem is that France allows vagrant, illegal migrants free reign in France. Their obligation is to ensure their safety and require them to either apply for asylum or return home.

  4. We left the EU to be responsible for our UK borders, it’s the British Government at fault for not protecting them as they should do, giving money to France helps but also gives the government a way to say it is not our fault we gave money to France. When in the EU, the UK was given EU money support to help stem the problem, (the amount shrouded in secrecy by the government ) They increased the number of custom patrol vessels (they have trouble seeing rubber dinghies although they do get some) but nothing significant in place along the UK coast lines.

    1. If France can’t control its borders it should allow UK Border Force to do it for them. Clearly paying France to do what they should be doing anyway isn’t working.

  5. So just why should we do anything to stop them? If they want so desperately to leave give them the means to do so.👿

      1. Not talking about Belarus/ Polish border but talking about getting them out of France. It’s a great pity that it’s been made illegal to sell rubber dinghies in Brittany and Normandy it was a ready made business opportunity. Still I suppose one could still buy a disused ferry, load it up and beach it on Brighton beach. The Greens will welcome them with open arms. All those new car-washes and workers doing the dirty jobs you British deem are beneath you.😝

        1. If the objective was to get them out of France then France should follow international law and invite the migrants to apply for asylum or be returned whence they came. The Belarus / Polish situation is relevant for underlining the staggering hypocrisy of EU border management. UK doesn’t want anymore cheap labour -whether from within or outside the EU and is more than happy free movement has stopped. The EU will now have to find jobs for their own citizens instead of passing them on to the UK.

          1. We don’t have to pass our citizens on to you because they don’t object to doing the dirty jobs like you British do. It’s also a fallacy that the migrants are cheap labour because the field workers and farmers are always being checked on how much they are being paid.

            It always makes me laugh when people like you buy the piles of rubble we off load onto you then you take great pleasure in revealing how long it has taken to make the pile just about livable.

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