France urges UK to overhaul asylum system to curb Channel

France has called on Britain to overhaul its asylum system and sign border security pacts with Belgium and the Netherlands to help prevent people endangering their lives by crossing the Channel in small boats to reach the UK.

Interior minister Gérald Darmanin said in an interview with the Financial Times that such steps would complement a revised agreement signed in November, under which the UK will increase payments to France by about 15 per cent to £63mn a year to fund a rise in the number of officers patrolling French beaches from 200 to 300.

“The accord we’ve signed is a good one that will allow us to boost patrols and better co-ordinate on combating people smugglers, but it is incomplete,” he added.

Darmanin was speaking just hours before four people died off the coast of Kent last Wednesday after attempting to cross to the UK from France in freezing conditions.

In a joint statement after the latest deaths, the minister and his UK counterpart Suella Braverman said the events underscored the need to intensify co-operation between London and Paris through frameworks such as the renewed pact. The French interior ministry declined to comment further.

Darmanin said small boat crossings were shifting away from the French port of Calais, claiming half were now leaving from Belgium and that networks of traffickers were also operating from the Netherlands. “We think it would make sense for the UK to sign agreements similar to what they have with us but with Belgium and the Netherlands.”

Migrants at an aid distribution point in Dunkirk
Migrants at an aid distribution point in Dunkirk. The number arriving in Britain in small boats jumped to more than 40,000 this year © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The issue of how to stem the flow of migrants seeking to cross the Channel in small boats has been a source of tension between the UK and France.

This year the number arriving in Britain via this route jumped to more than 40,000, the highest since figures began to be collected in 2018. In one incident last year, 27 people drowned during a crossing attempt despite having called British and French coastguards for help.

Braverman has previously likened the movement of migrants to an “invasion” — drawing criticism for her choice of language. Last week the UK prime minister Rishi Sunak unveiled a five-point plan to tackle the issue.

The UK’s exit from the EU has intensified the problem because the country is no longer part of the Dublin Regulation, which governs how member states process asylum-seekers’ applications and allows for some people to be sent back to the first EU country in which they arrived.

Darmanin said a new asylum treaty was needed between Britain and the EU, not just with France, in order to establish legal entry routes and an organised system of returns.

“We would absolutely agree to take back some of the migrants heading for Britain, as long as it was not just France doing so.”

Such a system would remove some incentives for the Channel crossings, he argued. “Right now people don’t have any other solution than to cross on small boats.”

Darmanin, left, and his UK counterpart Suella Braverman, right, meet to sign a revised pact aimed at curbing the flow of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats
Darmanin, left, and his UK counterpart Suella Braverman, right, met last month to sign a revised pact aimed at curbing the flow of migrants crossing the Channel © Thomas Samson/Pool/EPA-EFE

Separately, the French government is trying to tighten its own immigration rules to address longstanding issues such as a failure to carry out the majority of deportation orders and the reliance of sectors of the economy on illegal migrant labour.

Darmanin and labour minister Olivier Dussopt have been charged with shepherding a draft immigration law through parliament, starting in January. But to secure passage they will need to win over opposition MPs after President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance lost its majority in June elections.

“The law is a balanced one that sends a message of welcome to those who respect the republic and France and says goodbye to those who do not,” said Darmanin.

The politically charged immigration issue has become more urgent in France as Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National party now has a large number of MPs and opinion polls show almost three-quarters of French people think immigration is too high. The murder of a 12-year-old girl in Paris in October by a woman who was under a deportation order also ignited public outrage.

Darmanin said the bill would make it easier to deport immigrants by streamlining appeals, targeting those who committed serious crimes and abolishing protections, such as a rule that prevents the deportation of adults if they arrived in France before the age of 13.

The proposed law would ease the administrative burden for immigrants who were on a path of “integration and assimilation”, he said. It would also establish a new type of work permit open to people already working illegally in France in sectors with labour shortages.

At present most migrants arrive to join family members, with only 13 per cent annually arriving for work purposes. “France does not have enough doctors, or workers for our farms and restaurants . . . we need immigration to be based more on economic reasons than family ones,” said Darmanin.

However, even such limited opening for undocumented workers has irritated rightwing parties, including the conservative Les Républicains. They argue the programme would attract more illegal immigration.

Darmanin added that he was open to considering quotas to limit the number of work permits issued in order to gain their support.

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