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UK must stop using French as 'punchbags' over Channel migrant crossings, minister says

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By Alasdair Sandford  & Euronews  with AFP, AP
French police patrolling the beach between Ambleteusse and Wimereux, northern France, pass by the wreckage of asmall boat used by migrants, October 16, 2021.
French police patrolling the beach between Ambleteusse and Wimereux, northern France, pass by the wreckage of asmall boat used by migrants, October 16, 2021.   -   Copyright  MARC SANYE / AFP

France has hit back at accusations from the UK government that it is failing to prevent migrants from crossing the English Channel, a senior minister saying "we don't have any lessons to take from the British".

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin called on London to stop using the French as "punchbags in domestic politics", ahead of a meeting in Paris on Monday with his UK counterpart Priti Patel.

One day last week saw a record daily number of migrant crossings from France to England — at least 1,185 according to the UK government — while the annual number has more than doubled.

Politicians from Britain's ruling Conservative Party and right-wing newspapers have accused the French of not doing enough to prevent people from making the dangerous crossing in flimsy boats, and stop the criminal gangs behind the operations.

But Darmanin said France was enduring the consequences of British policy, not the other way round.

"I will remind my British counterpart that the NGOs who prevent the police and gendarmerie from working, are largely British NGOs with British citizens who are on French soil and are carrying out agitprop (agitation and propaganda)," the minister told CNews television.

"The people smugglers, who organise the networks and exploit women and children... are very often in Britain," he added.

The minister repeated claims by several French politicians and officials in northern France, that UK labour laws are too lax and encourage illegal immigration.

"Above all we must tell our British friends that it's an international question, migrants generally come from Africa, they generally come from Asia. Secondly they need to take extremely strong decisions, and they must stop using us as punchbags in domestic politics," Darmanin went on, pointing out that the Johnson government was "in difficulty" over issues such as Brexit and fishing rights.

Following his meeting with Patel, tensions appeared to ease as London and Paris agreed to strengthen cooperation further.

"More must be done to stop the dangerous crossings," the two ministers said in a statement, reiterating their "joint determination to prevent 100% of crossings and make this deadly route unviable".

The UK struck an agreement with France, worth €63 million, to equip and increase French patrols at the border. The government delayed paying its first instalment amid claims the French were not doing enough.

But Darmanin insisted that French authorities were succeeding in preventing migrant crossings, as well as providing humanitarian aid for an estimated 2,000 migrants currently in the Calais and Dunkirk areas along the northern French coast.

"There are women and children, who sleep in extremely harsh conditions in the winter... we rehouse them. We have rehoused 12,000 people since January 1, we distribute 2,200 meals per day, at the French state's expense — the state pays €4 million for these meals," Darmanin said.

Illegal immigration across the English Channel is one of several issues to have soured Anglo-French relations this year, as the governments of Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron take sharply diverging paths in the immediate post-Brexit period.

The UK prime minister and his supporters leapt upon comments by Johnson's French counterpart Jean Castex over the fishing rights dispute, claiming they showed that France is seeking to "punish" Britain for leaving the EU.

In September France said it would not tolerate "financial blackmail", following reports that British border guards were to receive training on how to turn back migrant boats before they reached the English coast.

The failure to stop unauthorised migrant crossings has caused frustration in Britain in particular. In 2019, Home Secretary Priti Patel promised to make them an “infrequent phenomenon” by spring 2020 and then pledged in August last year to “make this route unviable".

The increase in migrant crossings in small boats is partly the result of the lack of safe and legal alternative means, migration experts have told Euronews, as well as technological and security advances making stowaway journeys in lorries much harder.

The numbers arriving in the UK by boat without authorisation — believed to be over 20,000 this year — are fewer than those landing in such a manner in Italy or Spain.

In terms of asylum applications, in 2020 the UK received far fewer asylum applications than large EU countries such as Germany and France, and fewer also than Greece.

This article first published on Monday November 15 has been updated to report the joint statement from the British and French governments following the interior ministers' meeting.