The United Kingdom’s government has announced plans for its own talks on the Channel crisis with European ministers this week as it was frozen out of a crisis meeting in France.
Government ministers from Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands will meet in Calais on Sunday with officials from the European Union and EU border agency Frontex and police agency Europol following the drownings of 27 people in the Channel last Wednesday.
UK Home Secretary Priti Patel was barred from the meeting after Prime Minister Boris Johnson published the text of a letter he sent to French President Emmanuel Macron setting out London’s demands for concerted action on refugees.
Instead, she tweeted on Sunday: “I will be holding urgent talks with my European counterparts this week to prevent further tragedies in the Channel.”
There was no immediate comment from Patel’s interior ministry on the venue or timing of the talks.
But Patel used a commentary piece in The Sun to spell out the need for joint action and for tougher UK legislation as she comes under pressure in right-wing media and from her own Conservative party to get a grip on the crisis.
“There is still so much more we can do and I am sorry not to be at a meeting with European ministerial counterparts today to discuss this pressing issue,” she wrote in the paper.
“We need to be creative about finding new solutions that will have the maximum possible effect, which is why the prime minister and I stand ready to discuss proposals with our French counterparts at any time,” Patel said.
“And I know from my discussions with my European partners in recent days and weeks that there is more that can be done. Together, we can break up the people-smuggling gangs and save lives – but we must act now.”
‘Fight against people-smuggling’
France is carrying out a national organised crime investigation into the sinking, the deadliest migration accident on the Channel on record. A total of 17 men, seven women and three minors died.
Iraqi Kurds and at least one Somali were among those on board, though most have not been publicly identified yet.
France’s interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, said a car with German tags was seized in connection with the investigation.
The ministers’ meeting in Calais will focus on smuggling networks, which charge from 3,000 to 7,000 euros ($3,400 to $7,900) for the journey across the Channel.
The aim of the meeting is “improving operational cooperation in the fight against people-smuggling because these are international networks which operate in different European countries,” an aide to Darmanin told AFP.
Aid groups argue for more humane, coordinated asylum policies instead of just more police. At camps along the French coast, clusters of people from Sudan and Kurds from Iran and Iraq huddle under the chilly rain, waiting for their chance to cross the Channel – undeterred by Wednesday’s deaths and the stepped-up beach patrols.
The number of refugees trying to cross the Channel in small boats has jumped this year amid pandemic travel restrictions and after Brexit. Overall, however, the number is low in Britain compared with other European countries.
‘Boats must stop’
Despite the Calais snub, the UK pressed anew for action with France as demanded by Johnson in his letter to Macron, including joint police patrols on the northern French coast – something rejected in the past as infringing on French sovereignty.
More controversially, he also proposed sending back all refugees who land in England, which he claimed would save “thousands of lives by fundamentally breaking the business model of the criminal gangs”.
“Those are exactly the kinds of things we need to do,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Sky News.
“Our policy is very clear: these boats must stop. We can’t just do it on our own. We do need the cooperation of the French,” he said.
But ahead of the Calais meeting, Britain and France faced mounting criticism for bickering instead of working together.
“Both countries are engaged in a blame game while children drown in our Channel,” Lisa Nandy, foreign affairs spokeswoman for Britain’s opposition Labour party, said on Sky.
“It’s simply unconscionable,” she said.