Children And Promises Drown In The Channel While France And The U.K. Do Nothing

On November 24th, Al Jazeera confirmed the deaths of 27 refugees and asylum seekers who were trying to cross the English Channel with an inflatable dinghy. This has been labelled the worst disaster on record involving migrants in the sea separating France and the United Kingdom – yet it is not the first tragedy. The number of migrants crossing the Channel has surged to 25,776 in 2021, up from 8,461 in 2020 and 1,835 in 2019. A French official told the BBC that before the November disaster, 14 people had already drowned in 2021. In 2020, seven people died and two disappeared, while in 2019 four died. The numbers are increasing, but politicians in France and the U.K. have done little to help the situation, except blame each other. 

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson once again has unconvincingly portrayed himself “appalled” by the tragedy, but unprepared to reflect upon how the country has contributed in bringing it about. He insisted that the French government had to change as they have not “approached the problem of the crossings in a way we think the situation deserves.” Similarly, the U.K. home secretary, Priti Patel has expressed that “it is up to France to stop refugees crossing the Channel in small boats.” Patel, a right-wing conservative is also facing three legal challenges over her controversial plans to push back refugees on small boats in the channel who are trying to reach the U.K.

Several charities including Care4Calais and Channel Rescue are involved in challenges, arguing that Patel’s plans are unlawful under human rights and maritime laws. Freedom from Torture is involved in a third challenge. One day after the tragedy, Patel claimed in the British parliament that the Border Force was prepared to turn around boats from France and send them back. Yet, this has been heavily criticized by many, including Mark Serwotka,  General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union. Serwotka expressed that “it is shocking that the government is suggesting Border Force staff turn boats back, which is morally reprehensible and unlawful.”

According to the Guardian, The U.K. has recently provided £54m financial support to the French to reduce Channel crossing attempts. This was supposed to fund additional police patrols of French beaches. However, there is no evidence that it has been successful. Consequently, the U.K. government says France is not meeting its obligations, while the French say they are and policing the beaches is simply not enough. In October, a French report published by the National Assembly claimed that the French government’s migrant policy had been a failure and that it has led to violations of migrants’ rights. According to the report, of all the money spent by the French and British in 2020 to deal with the migrant population along the French coast, about 85% was spent on security, and only 15% on health and other assistance.

After the tragedy, French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that France will “not let the Channel become a cemetery” and promised to “find and condemn those responsible for the tragedy,” but took no responsibility for their own inaction. Instead, Macron insisted that Boris Johnson needed to stop politicizing the issue for domestic gain and criticized his use of “diplomacy over twitter.” Notably, this latest tension between France and the U.K. comes after conflicts regarding the fishing rights of boats from the European Union in British waters. This has not facilitated productive conversations between Johnson and Macron, and has cemented stubbornness and selfishness within both governments. 

More importantly, it appears clear to charities and human rights advocates that the French and U.K. governments are simply not looking at the problem correctly. Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, asks “[H]ow many tragedies like this must we see before the governments fundamentally change their approach by committing to an ambitious expansion of safe routes for those in desperate need of protection?” Similarly, labour MP Jeremy Corbyn has called on the U.K. government to concentrate on the causes of mass migration, rather than trying to stop people getting into the country. 

This is particularly true as, according to Al Jazeera,  “migrants huddling in makeshift camps on the northern shores of France insist that neither Priti Patel’s threat nor the tragic drowning would stop them from trying to cross the Channel to Britain.”  Manzar, a 28-year old Kurd from Iran explained to the BBC, “yesterday is sad and it is scary but we have to go by boat, there is no other way.” The Times newspaper also reported that one of the dead was an Afghan soldier who had worked with the British armed forces and whose family decided to risk the crossing because they had “waited so long for help” from the U.K. – they were desperate. 

It is clear that a different transnational approach is needed which is focused on humanity, compassion, and respect for human life, and less focused on politics and egos. The U.K. and France have therefore not only failed in what they have done, they have failed in all the things they haven’t done to stop these tragic deaths from occurring.

Lola Perle