OPINION: France protects UK from migrant crisis, a fact Britain will never accept

The British RNLI help an overloaded small boat in the Ebglish Channel.
The British RNLI help an overloaded small boat in the Ebglish Channel. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP
Calais is a never-ending tragedy - writes John Lichfield - and something like Wednesday’s calamity has been inevitable for months.

One of the definitions of tragedy is that everyone is partly right and everyone is partly wrong.

Boris Johnson does not do tragedy. His first instinct after at least 27 people drowned in the Channel was to blame the French.

Yes, the French are partly to blame. So are the British. So are the people smugglers. So are the migrants themselves. So, arguably, are the volunteers and NGOs who soften the misery and squalor in which thousands of would-be emigrants to Britain live in makeshift camps in the Pas-de-Calais.

I have been writing about the Calais migrant crisis for 24 years. It has existed for almost 30 years. Everything has been tried. Nothing works for long.

The “Calais problem” cannot be solved in Calais because it is not a Calais problem. It is a small part of a European, or world, problem of displacement of peoples by war or famine or misery, which has no simple solution either.

It is time (some hope) for the British public and British media and British political class to face a few simple facts.

The notion that Britain is being “swamped” (grotesque word after what happened yesterday) by illegal migration is nonsense. In the last couple of years, the numbers of asylum seekers/ refugees/ illegal migrants reaching Britain has reduced, not increased.

It has reduced because France – working on Britain’s behalf – has blocked the routes by which the migrants once crossed the Channel, by ship or tunnel, truck or train.

Hence, the beginning of the small boat “invasion” three years ago, rising to a crescendo with 25,000 successful crossings this year. To which should be added an estimated 50,000 crossings blocked by the French and, now, miserably, at least 40 drownings since the start of 2021.

READ ALSO What is France doing to stop small boat crossing to the UK?

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Here then is the other simple fact which Britons should face up to – but won’t.

The English Channel and France have been protecting Britain from successive waves of migration from the Balkans, Asia and Africa for almost three decades.

The French have protected Britain by allowing the UK to move its southern frontier, de facto, to the Pas-de-Calais.

The English Channel did so because the migrants were – until three years ago – scared of the sea.

Once the asylum seekers got over that fear – from desperation because other routes were blocked – yesterday’s tragedy became inevitable. Blaming the French for what happened makes as much sense as blaming the water.

The British media accuse French police of standing by and watching the asylum seekers climb on dinghies and kayaks. There is some evidence of that happening in one or two case. The French authorities should investigate and explain.

But in truth it would be impossible for the French to police every metre of the 100 kilometres of the Pas de Calais and Nord coastline without immense resources.

Britain offered to give an extra £54 million in July but has only just  handed over only £20 million after French complaints.

French officials reckon it already costs them €120 million a year to “police Britain’s frontier” of which London covers only about 20 percent.

Both the French and British governments blame the people-smuggling gangs which operate on both sides of the Channel. They are, indeed, cynical and heartless people. But they exist largely because Britain and France  made it so hard for would-be asylum seekers to cross the Channel in any other way.

Parts of the British media accuse the French of encouraging asylum-seekers to try their luck in Britain, instead of France. Emmanuel Macron has even been accused of being another Alexander Lukashenko: manipulating migrants for political ends.

All of that is nonsense. In 2020 France dealt with 80,000 asylum applications and the EU as a whole  416,000. The UK dealt with 27,000.

The great majority of the people who illegally (and invisibly) cross land borders into France every day are people who speak a little French and have family or contacts in France. They want to stay in France.

A minority, the Calais migrants, come to France because they want to reach the UK. A very small minority of this minority are people who have had asylum requests turned down in EU countries.

When French police clear makeshift camps in the Calais area – confiscating tents and even sleeping bags – the migrants are given a chance to go to French shelters elsewhere and seek asylum in France. Only a handful ever do so.

Why are they so determined to go to Britain? Because they speak a little English; or they have connections in the UK; or they have been persuaded that the UK, without ID cards, is an El Dorado for migrants.

After yesterday’s calamity, the French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, called for new, “tough” international – ie EU plus British – efforts to resolve the permanent Calais crisis. Good luck with that.

Other voices in France – even the great centre-left newspaper Le Monde – are now suggesting that it is time for France to lift the barriers and let the migrants cross.

The 2002 Treaty of Le Touquet moved the English southern border to Calais for the first time since the 16th century. As a result, the voices say, France shields Britain from its international obligation to consider asylum requests and allows Britain to evade a moral obligation to accept a reasonable proportion of the tens of thousands of refugees/ asylum seekers/ migrants reaching Europe.

The calamity in the Channel yesterday will strengthen those arguments.

Lifting the barriers would not be an easy decision for the French government. It would be portrayed in Britain as an act of war. It might attract even more migrants to Calais.

I have long thought that it was a false solution. But then there is no obvious other solution. Something must be done to give desperate people some hope of reaching Kent without risking their lives.

It is time for global Britain to be reminded that France – far from creating the Calais migrant crisis – has protected Britain from a global migration crisis for years.


Member comments

  1. Very good article, better and more down to earth than most of what I read. There is in my view the need to distinguish those who seek asylum from those who just prefer a “better life” in another country, in this case the UK. The British government has a duty to provide accessible means of making requests for either asylum or plain immigration. The suggestion of one French MP to set up/recreate safe and welcoming centres inland in the Pas de Calais where British immigration staff can be based to receive and process applications makes sense to me. Those who are granted admission can enter by normal transportation, however long it takes, those who are unsuccessful would have to apply for assylum in France or returned to their country of origin. However awful this sounds, at least it gives some hope and prevent people embarking on these ghastly voyages

  2. If I had no right to travel to the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, I would be sent back. At Pearson airport in Toronto US immigration would stop me boarding without documentation, in fact my French wife was denied entry a number of years back because her French passport did note have biometric encoding.
    If France wants to end the current arrangements it must be ready to have undocumented travelers sent back. Or, it could prevent them entering France in the first place. No wait…. there’s something….. ah yes now I remember. Can you guess what it is?

    1. I’m guessing your wife was not a refugee? If you can’t see the difference between entering as a visitor required to meet specified visa criteria and entering seeking asylum then I pray you are never in desperate need of sanctuary.

      1. All those crossing the Channel illegally are not fleeing persecution, they’re fleeing France for what they consider would be a better life in the UK. If all they wanted was sanctuary , that’s on offer to them in France. A genuine asylum seeker would be content with having reached France.

        1. 70% of those crossing are granted asylum so the Home Office and UK courts disagree with you. The UK already takes less than half as many asylum seekers as France. If you were escaping persecution and trying to secure a future for yourself and your loved ones would you expect that was more likely in a country with which you had no prior links or one where you spoke a bit of the language or had family or other connections?

          1. Absurd argument. If they received asylum in Britain then they would also have received it in France – without the risk to their lives and the lives of others crossing the Channel. It’s self-evident that crossing the Channel has nothing to do with claiming asylum and everything to do with simply demanding residency in Britain rather than France.

  3. Your argument says that, no matter where in the EU these refugees land, it is the UK’s responsibility to accept them. You cannot really believe that, surely?

  4. Susan,
    In reply to your earlier question, no, my wife was not a refugee.
    Neither are most of the people making the crossing to the UK. The majority are economic migrants. The gender and age makeup of the people is obscured because of political “correctness”. When it became correct to lie to the inhabitants of a country to facilitate this transfer of responsibility, I would like to know.
    I have sympathy for refugees displaced for whatever reason, it is a tragedy which shames humanity. My anger is directed to the regimes responsible. I don’t agree that the UK is obliged to accept these refugees without question and, in particular, I don’t think the EU and France should expect to export their problem to the UK without complaint.

  5. I agree. John writes matter-of-fact and clearly. Compared to all the tut-tutting in the newspapers, he gives the longer term view based on his long experience. Thanx.

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