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British-French blame game over migrants’ deaths may be good politics, but it does NOTHING to stop kids drowning in the Channel

With four Iranian asylum seekers drowned after their boat capsized off the French coast en route to the UK, how and why does illegal human trafficking continue unimpeded, with nothing done to stop it on either side of the Channel?

The grim inevitably of at least two asylum-seeking children drowning in the freezing waters of the English Channel doesn’t make the tragedy any less shocking, but it should cause outrage at the widely perceived lack of effort exerted to prevent such a catastrophe.

And, with all due respect, this particular one is on France.

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With two dead children, aged just five and eight, among an estimated 20 Iranians hauled from the water after their boat capsized off the coast of Dunkirk, and another suspected missing and presumed dead, serious questions need to be asked about how it was possible that so many asylum seekers managed to attempt the crossing in broad daylight, at 9.30 in the morning, unimpeded by French authorities.

In response to the tragedy, the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel was careful in her use of language. Of course there were the obligatory emotional platitudes, but she also made it perfectly clear that the incident occurred outside the area of British control. “I’m truly saddened to learn of the tragic loss of life in French waters this morning,” she said, “my thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones at this time.”

It is fair for Patel to point this out to the French authorities, because that part of France’s northern coast – which so often provides a launching point for a potentially successful crossing of the Channel – is not that vast, secluded or private. You would think the combined resources of the Gallic coast guard, navy and various humanitarian charities and NGOs that are active in the region would be well-placed to not only detect, but prevent these perilous attempts.

It’s not remote beaches or hidden coves that these boats launch from. The corpse of a 28-year-old Sudanese migrant was found in August on the beach at Sangatte, just outside the busy port of Calais, after his failed attempt to navigate a Channel crossing. Yet here we are, towards the end of October, and still nothing seems to be being done to stop these ill-fated voyages.

Instead, it appears that the approach is to allow the asylum seekers to board hugely overloaded and inappropriate vessels and attempt to make their way into British waters, where they become a UK Border Force problem – nothing for French officials to worry about any further. 

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FILE PHOTO: A dingy carries a group of migrants is escorted to the English Border Force by a French patrol boat on the English Channel, 12 miles from Dover on May 27, 2020 at sea
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While this may not necessarily be the case, it is certainly a common perception from this side of the Channel. But without any sort of formal processing of British asylum applications on French soil, and with the UK refusing to implement such a remote control, it seems even the cold and stormy weather will not deter these desperate people. And yet, the number of illegal arrivals keeps mounting; this year it stands at more than 7,400 – four times the figure recorded in 2019.

Because legislative support for asylum seekers to the UK is pretty much at an end. The Dubs agreement, which supported applications from children aged 17 and under, is no longer, and the rules on family reunion cease at the end of the year.

That leaves the unofficial route the only alternative for a desperate asylum seeker: a scenario in which the criminal gangs largely responsible for operating the cross-Channel routes, with boats laden with as much human cargo as they can manage, are calling all the shots.

So while France undoubtedly has some culpability in enabling this illegal activity, the UK also needs to have a practical and humane alternative in place. Having two asylum schemes expire and nothing on the shelf to replace them might send a message to the electorate, to France and to the migrants themselves, that the only way into the UK is via an official application for asylum. But though this sounds tough, and plays well to a British public aghast at the numbers of scrappy vessels loaded with ragged people that have landed on the southern beaches of England from where they often disappeared without trace, the migrants still come.

If Boris Johnson and Priti Patel really believe that this is the best way to prevent the bodies of drowned children from washing ashore on the Normandy coast or, inevitably, a pebbled English beach then they are fooling only themselves. Because you can bet that the criminal gangs of opportunistic people smugglers are filling the passenger list for their next deadly crossing at this very moment, knowing there’s nothing to really stop them.

This is not a problem without a solution. Sure, the blue-sky thinking at the Home Office that led to suggestions of asylum processing centres on windswept Atlantic islands or ferries moored mid-Channel grabbed the headlines, but a bilateral agreement to locate these on French soil should be far simpler.

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That way, when boats laden down with asylum seekers are intercepted or turned back as they attempt to cross La Manche, there is a proper plan in place. But the UK and France need to lay off the blame game, accept joint responsibility for all outcomes and stop the politicking before agreeing a course of action.

Both governments need to ask themselves how many dead children floating in the English Channel they really need to see before something positive is done.

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