Friday, September 18, 2020
Politics

Britain and France to hold Channel migrant talks

Britain and France to hold Channel migrant talks
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Britain and France will this week discuss a plan to disrupt the flow of migrants in small boats across the English Channel, as UK defence secretary Ben Wallace considered a request for naval assistance.

Chris Philp, immigration minister, will discuss with French counterparts a request that British taxpayers provide tens of millions of pounds of support to pay for patrols along the beaches of northern France.

Britain has already paid more than £100m to help French authorities disperse migrants in recent years. UK government officials did not deny reports that Paris was seeking an extra £30m: “Let’s see where it lands,” said one.

But suggestions that the Royal Navy would join an operation to “push back” migrant boats into French waters were played down by the British government, which accepted that such a proposal could breach maritime law and put lives at risk.

One official said that the “push back” idea was “not literal”, but that there could be an attempt to form a “passive blockade” to stop the passage of boats carrying migrants.

More than 500 people have been intercepted crossing the Channel in recent days, with people smugglers taking advantage of calm seas to make the perilous trip across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

The Home Office’s request for naval assistance has been put through to the Ministry of Defence and Mr Wallace is expected to reach a decision sometime this week.

One of the most likely outcomes is that the Navy contributes a ship or air-surveillance assets, such as helicopters, to give the Border Force a clearer picture of incoming migrant vessels.

Last January, HMS Mersey was deployed to the Channel at the Home Office’s request, and its superior radar created an “intelligence picture” for border officials to work from.

Another option is that military intelligence experts could be deployed to the Joint Maritime Security Centre, run by former Royal Marine Dan O’Mahoney, who has been charged by ministers with making the crossing “unviable”.

Nick Gibb, schools minister, told Sky News: “We’re talking to French ministers about preventing people leaving France in the first place and then finding other ways of making sure that we return boats to France when they’re trying to make what is a very dangerous crossing.”

“France is a safe country, and if people are seeking asylum, they should be seeking asylum in France in the first instance.”

Paris has repeatedly demanded funding from the UK to finance its police work to disperse migrants who gather on the French coast to attempt a crossing. 

Gérald Darmanin, President Emmanuel Macron’s new interior minister, said last month at a meeting with his UK counterpart Priti Patel in Calais that the migrants gathered there only to reach the other side. 

“We reminded the minister [Ms Patel] that we need extra resources,” he said then. “The British government has done a lot to protect its coastline, but we need more on this side both in terms of equipment and manpower.” 

French coastguard and rescue vessels do pick up migrant boats when they run into trouble on the French side of the Channel. 

On Saturday, a customs patrol boat picked up four exhausted people in an inflatable boat off Calais that had been encountered by a sailing yacht and took them back to shore — they were among 37 rescued that day by French authorities. 

Even with repeated injections of UK financial aid, France has struggled for years to control the migrants, often from Afghanistan and the Middle East, who gather in Calais and set up camp before trying to cross the Channel at its shortest point. 



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