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Anne Daguerre unpacks the long-standing tensions between the UK and France over responsibility for people trying to cross the border by irregular means, highlighting Sunak’s recent calls for a UK-EU returns agreement in the absence of a bilateral agreement with France.

Which country is responsible for processing and, when needed, rescuing asylum seekers who try to reach the UK from the French coast? This issue has been one of the many thorns in the side of the Franco-British relationship since the 1990s but has become even more pressing with the rising number of small boat arrivals – from 299 in 2018 to 45,755 in 2022.

An estimated 297 people died trying to cross the Channel between 1999 and 2020. On 24 November 2021, 27 people drowned; British and French coastguards wasted crucial hours passing the buck between each other as the dinghy sank. The following day, then PM Boris Johnson published a letter addressed to French president, Emmanuel Macron, proposing ‘a bilateral re-admissions agreement’ between France and the UK to ‘allow all illegal migrants who cross the Channel to be returned’. This suggestion angered the French president so much that he disinvited then Home Secretary, Priti Patel, from urgent talks about the Channel crossings.

Franco-British relations have improved markedly since Rishi Sunak became PM, but tensions are still simmering. Rescue operations, particularly on the French side, are overwhelmed and cannot cope with the increasing number of crossings. Despite an announced reinforcement of sea rescue operations at the end of November 2022, on 14 December 2022 another boat got into difficulties, with four people drowning as a result.

Whist most UK politicians have blamed smuggling gangs for the loss of life at sea, some experts have argued that the lack of legal asylum routes forces people to travel through irregular means.

The presence of asylum seekers wanting to reach the UK has been a permanent feature in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region since the 1990s. The construction of the Channel Tunnel and the development of maritime links between France and the UK have provided opportunities for people to cross into Britain. To prevent this from happening, both countries agreed a series of bilateral agreements, starting with the Canterbury Treaty (1986), the Sangatte Protocol (1991) and the Touquet Agreement (2003).

The Touquet treaty established a framework for the management of the shared border between the two countries, including the deployment of French border officials to UK border control checkpoints in France, and vice versa. The agreement also allowed for the UK to provide funding and resources to help improve security and prevent irregular migration from France to the UK. The agreement initially focused on preventing migrants from using ferries, planes, vehicles, and trucks to enter the UK.

Since 2018, bilateral agreements have increasingly focused on the issue of small boat crossings. In 2022/2023 both countries have reinforced their co-operation. In March 2023 the Joint Leaders Declaration issued after the Franco-British leaders summit – the first in five years – included further financial commitments from the UK for France: around £476 million between 2023/24 and 2025/26.

Conservative MPs complain that the French authorities do not do enough to prevent small boats from departing from French shores and reaching the UK, and question whether the UK is getting value for money from its £476 million.

The Home Affairs Select Committee has also been critical, writing in its July 2022 report on Channel crossings:

Alternatively the French authorities with or without British assistance could intercept the boats once in French territorial waters and return them to French land whence they started their journey, as international maritime lawyers advised us they were legally entitled to do. This would soon have the deterrent effect at preventing people risking a dangerous and expensive round trip to and from French beaches but the French Government refuses to countenance such a policy.

However, the British commentariat has failed to appreciate how unpopular these bilateral agreements are in France. In 2015, the National Advisory Commission for Human Rights denounced the entanglement of different treaties and administrative provisions which result in making France the ‘policing arm’ of British migration policy. Calais has become a bunker and is unrecognisable from what it looked like twenty years ago thanks to the maximum securitisation of the border.

Olivier Cahn, professor of law and criminal science at Cergy Paris University, has argued that the main objective ‘assigned to the cooperation is fighting against immigration to the United Kingdom’, which is ‘determined solely by British interests’. In his testimony to a 2020 Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry, Xavier Bertrand, President of Hauts-de-France Regional Council, wrote:

To sum up, since the Treaty of Le Touquet came into force in 2004, the United Kingdom outsources the protection and surveillance of its border with France, in exchange for funds which are insufficient and do not allow for a long-lasting solution to migration challenges.    

Despite the warm words at the Anglo-French summit in March 2023, the situation between the two countries remains unchanged. Emmanuel Macron has vetoed any suggestion of a return agreement regarding irregular migrants from the UK to France.

Rishi Sunak is pleading for a return agreement with the EU. Although a fully-fledged agreement is unlikely to take shape anytime soon, in a sign of easing tensions between the EU and the UK, London and Brussels have recently negotiated a deal to tackle smugglers.

For a new UK-EU return agreement to be seriously considered, both the EU and the UK would need to go beyond the purely transactional, nimby (not in my backyard) approach that has characterised their relationship in the past.

When the UK decided to drop out of the Dublin regulations post-Brexit, it proposed a replacement plan which would have enabled the UK to return all third-country nationals and stateless persons to the first EU country they had travelled through. In exchange, the UK government would have taken in undocumented migrants seeking to travel to the EU via the UK, except from airports. Given that the UK takes far fewer asylum seekers than most EU countries, the EU rejected the plan.

Recent talks indicate that the freeze between EU and UK politicians is starting to thaw, opening up the possibility of cooperation in the future. It is very much in the interest of both sides to do so.

By Dr Anne Daguerre, Reader in social justice, University of Brighton.


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