France calls off talks with Britain as rift widens over Channel migrant drownings

People defending the rights of migrants stand next to a banner reading “309 dead at the Franco-British border since 1999”, during a rally outside the port of Calais, France, November 25, 2021.Rafael Yaghobzadeh/Associated Press

The growing row between France and Britain over how to stop migrants crossing the English Channel escalated on Friday after French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin abruptly canceled a meeting with his British counterpart, the Home Secretary Priti Patel.

Ministers were due to meet in Calais on Sunday to coordinate efforts to tackle level crossings following the deaths of at least 27 migrants who drowned on Wednesday. Officials from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany were also expected to participate in the talks.

On Friday, Mr Darmanin rescinded Ms Patel’s invitation in response to a series of proposals made by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that infuriated French officials. In a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron sent on Thursday and posted on Twitter, Mr Johnson called for joint patrols along the French coast and said France should take back migrants who have crossed the English Channel.

Mr Darmanin said Mr Johnson’s letter was ‘unacceptable and contrary to our partner discussions’. He added in a statement that “going public made it even worse.” Talks with other European officials will continue, he said.

Gabriel Attal, a French government spokesman, told French television on Friday that Mr Johnson’s letter did not respect the work done by French border patrols and police. He also said returning migrants to France would not solve the problem and that Britain needed to do more to deal with asylum seekers.

Diplomatic tension has done little to quell outrage over the drownings and the inability of either government to deal with the crisis.

“I have a lot of anger about what is happening,” said Maria Mezdour, who works with refugee children in Calais, on France’s northern coast, which has become a focal point for migrant crossings. “It’s heartbreaking. But it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last.”

Ms Mezdour was among around 100 mourners who gathered in a Calais park on Thursday evening to remember the men, women and children who died on Wednesday in what police have called the worst migration disaster on the Channel .

A woman sang a rendition of amazing Grace as candles twinkled around a large banner marking the names of those who lost their lives. Then the group solemnly walked to a nearby beach and threw flowers into the sea.

The number of migrant crossings has soared in recent months as desperate people from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan flock to Calais hoping to get to the UK.

More than 25,700 people have made the crossing so far this year, according to UK Home Office figures. That’s three times more than in 2020, and in a single day this month 1,100 migrants had to be rescued by British Coastguard boats.

There were few indications in Calais that Wednesday’s drownings had deterred anyone from making the trip. By Thursday morning, just hours after the disaster, more than a dozen small craft had set out for Dover carrying around 40 migrants in total.

“You have to keep trying when it’s your dream,” said a 19-year-old Sudanese who spoke to The Globe and Mail. He has been living in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Calais for three months and has tried several times to cross the English Channel before being thwarted by the police. The Globe does not identify him because he feared reprisals. Despite the drownings, he plans to try again. “You could die here,” he said Thursday, showing off his flimsy tent. “So why not try ?”

The port of Calais has long been a jumping off point for migrants hoping to get to Britain, but the numbers started to swell in 2014 when refugees from Syria started crossing European borders. French police have dismantled several camps in Calais where thousands of migrants lived in squalid conditions, but many small settlements remain in the city and along the coast.

For years, migrants tried to hide in trucks or trains crossing the Channel Tunnel to Dover. This became more difficult as security around the port tightened and French police increased patrols. Brexit and the pandemic also reduced vehicle traffic last year.

As a result, many migrants have turned to the sea and started boarding dinghies or rickety boats to make the 30 kilometer journey, which can take up to 11 hours. Smugglers have also settled in and developed sophisticated networks that prey on migrants and charge up to €1,000 (about $1,400) for a place on a ship.

Britain has often criticized France for failing to stem the flow of migrants. Last summer, Home Secretary Priti Patel slammed French police for failing to intervene to stop migrants setting sail and she threatened to order British Coastguard boats to push ships back into French waters. The British government has also said it will pay France £54 million (about $91 million) to increase police patrols and strengthen aerial surveillance.

On Friday, British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defended Mr Johnson’s proposals and he urged the French to reconsider the decision to disinvite Ms Patel from the talks on Sunday. “No nation can tackle this alone,” he told British television. “It is in our interest. It is in their interest. This is certainly in the interests of people trafficked to the UK. »

Mr. Darmanin pointed out that the French police have arrested more than 1,500 smugglers this year and dismantled 44 smuggling networks. He said police also arrested five men linked to Wednesday’s drownings.

The Home Secretary also attacked Britain’s immigration system and argued that the country was not as vigilant as France when it came to illegal employment. This only encouraged the migrants, he added. “English employers use this labor to make the things that English people make and consume,” Mr Darmanin said on Thursday. “We say ‘reform your labor market’. “

People like Marine Tondelier are tired of all the political blame. She was among the mourners in Calais on Thursday and blames both sides for not making it easier for migrants to seek asylum. “France and the UK, they always say they are such rich countries, such human countries. So they have to show it,” she said. “They could start by showing they care.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are compiled by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. register today.