Skip to main content

People defending migrants' rights stand next to a banner reading "309 dead on the France U.K. border since 1999," during a gathering outside the port of Calais, France, Nov. 25, 2021.Rafael Yaghobzadeh/The Associated Press

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

The ministers were supposed to meet on Sunday in Calais to co-ordinate efforts to tackle the crossings in the wake of the deaths of at least 27 migrants who drowned on Wednesday. Officials from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany were also expected to take part in the talks.

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

Mr. Darmanin said Mr. Johnson’s letter was “unacceptable and counter to our discussions between partners.” He added in a statement that “making it public made it even worse.” Talks with the other European officials will go ahead, he said.

Gabriel Attal, a spokesman for the French government, told French television on Friday that Mr. Johnson’s letter failed to respect the work that has been done by French border patrols and police. He also said returning migrants to France won’t address the problem and that Britain needs to do more to process asylum seekers.

The diplomatic tension has done little to calm the outrage over the drownings and the inability of either government to address the crisis.

“I have a lot of anger at what’s 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 will not be the last.”

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

One woman sang a rendition of Amazing Grace as candles flickered 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 pour into Calais in the hope of getting to the U.K.

More than 25,700 people have made the crossing so far this year, according to figures from Britain’s Home Office. That’s three times higher than in all of 2020 and, on one day alone this month, 1,100 migrants had to be rescued by British coast guard boats.

There were few indications in Calais that Wednesday’s drownings had deterred anyone else from making the voyage. By Thursday morning, just hours after the disaster, more than a dozen small crafts had made their way to Dover carrying around 40 migrants in total.

“You have to keep trying when it’s your dream,” said a 19-year old man from Sudan who spoke to The Globe and Mail. He’s been living in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Calais for three months and he’s tried several times to make the Channel crossing only to be thwarted by the police. The Globe is not identifying him because he feared reprisals. Despite the drownings, he plans to try again. “You could die here,” he said Thursday, pointing to 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 began streaming across European borders. French police have dismantled several camps in Calais where thousands of migrants lived in squalid conditions, but many smaller settlements remain in the city and along the coast.

For years migrants tried to stow away on trucks or trains heading through the Channel Tunnel to Dover. That became more difficult as security around the port tightened and French police increased patrols. Brexit and the pandemic also decreased vehicle traffic last year.

As a result, many migrants turned to the sea and began loading into dinghies or rickety crafts to make the 30-kilometre journey, which can take up to 11 hours. Smugglers have also moved in and developed sophisticated networks that prey on migrants and charge up to €1,000 (about $1,400) for a spot in a vessel.

Britain has frequently blamed France for failing to stem the flow of migrants. Last summer, Home Secretary Priti Patel criticized French police for not intervening to stop migrants from setting sail and she threatened to order British coast guard boats to push the vessels back into French waters. The British government has also said it would pay France £54-million (about $91-million) to increase police patrols and boost aerial surveillance.

On Friday Britain’s Transport Minister Grant Shapps defended Mr. Johnson’s proposals and he urged the French to reconsider the decision to disinvite Ms. Patel to the talks on Sunday. “No nation can tackle this alone,” he told British television. “It’s in our interests. It’s in their interests. It’s certainly in the interests of people who are being people trafficked to the U.K.”

Mr. Darmanin has pointed out that French police have arrested more than 1,500 people smugglers this year and broken up 44 smuggling networks. He added that police have also arrested five men connected to Wednesday’s drownings.

The Interior Minister also took a shot at Britain’s immigration system and argued that the country wasn’t as vigilant about illegal employment as France. That only encouraged migrants, he added. “English employers use this labour to make the things that the English manufacture and consume,” Mr. Darmanin said Thursday. “We say ‘reform your labour market.’ "

People like Marine Tondelier are tired of all the political finger pointing. She was among the mourners in Calais on Thursday and she blames both sides for not making it easier for migrants to seek asylum. “France and the U.K., they are always saying that they are such rich countries, such humane countries. So they must show that,” she said. “They could start by showing that they care.”

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