Refugee groups in the UK and abroad have slammed the British government's plan to turn back migrants crossing the English Channel as impractical, dangerous and illegal.
France stressed it will not tolerate any "financial blackmail" or flouting of international law, following reports that British Border Force staff were to receive training on how to turn back migrant boats before they reach the English coast.
At a meeting between UK Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel and her French counterpart Gérald Darmanin this week, Patel demanded French authorities do more to stem the flow of migrants reaching UK shores.
The British government has reportedly threatened to hold back money due to be paid to the French as part of a cooperation agreement to stamp out people smuggling between France and the UK. France rejects the British claims, saying resources and migrant interceptions have increased.
Rising numbers of people attempting to cross the Channel in flimsy boats amid good late summer weather have grabbed headlines in the UK recently. However, figures show new asylum applications in the UK are well below those in other large western European countries.
"Crossing the Channel in a small boat is only ever a desperate last resort, and an extremely dangerous one. When people's lives are in danger they need help, compassion and humanity, not to have their ordeal extended," said Naomi Phillips, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the British Red Cross.
Amnesty International UK described the plan as "senseless, dangerous and almost certainly unlawful".
“Coming on top of draconian plans to criminalise refugees arriving in the UK, this is a government playing politics with people’s lives in the Channel. It is cruel and destined to fail," said Steve Valdez-Symonds, the human rights group's Refugee and Migrant Rights Director, in a statement.
"As a nation state you can't just head into another country's territorial waters and drop people off on the beach without their agreement," tweeted Daniel Sohege, director of Stand For All, a human rights advocacy group, highlighting the French rejection of Patel's plan.
Tony Smith, a former head of Britain’s Border Force, said trying to force back overloaded and often unseaworthy boats would be “highly dangerous.”
“The top priority in my book, under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, is the preservation of life above all else, and so both the French and the British should be committed to that, and making sure that nobody dies,” he said.
The UK received 29,456 asylum applications in 2020, according to the House of Commons Library. The UK Refugee Council put the figure at 31,115 in the year ending March 2021 -- the top five countries of origin being Iran, Albania, Eritrea, Sudan and Iraq.
Both numbers represent a slight decrease on the previous year, it's thought due in part to the coronavirus pandemic.
To put the figures in context, European Union figures say Germany had 102,500 applicants in 2020 -- nearly a quarter of all first-time applicants in the EU. Spain had the second highest number, with 86,400 applicants, with France in third receiving 81,800.
The British government has yet to strike agreements with EU countries on returning failed asylum seekers. Brexit means the EU's regulations, allowing member states in some circumstances to return asylum seekers to an EU country they passed through, no longer apply to the UK.
Migrants have long used northern France as a launching point to reach Britain, either by stowing away in trucks or on ferries, or — increasingly since the coronavirus pandemic disrupted international travel — in dinghies and other small boats organized by smugglers. The British and French governments have worked for years to stop the journeys, with limited success.
More than 14,000 people have made the crossing this year, according to a count by Britain’s Press Association news agency. In 2020, about 8,500 people made the journey, and several died in the attempt.
In mid-August a dinghy sunk, provoking the death of an Eritrean migrant. Last year, four members of an Iraqi Kurdish family died with their one-year-old child before its body was found several months later on the Norwegian coast, according to British media.