Agreement between France and UK will strengthen policy to stop illegal migration into the EU

Politics - December 21, 2022

EU member states under whose flag humanitarian ships sail in the Mediterranean must also take responsibility for receiving migrants. 

An agreement, seen as an important step in rebuilding relations between France and the UK, was signed in Paris in mid-November aimed at combating illegal immigration. Illegal crossings of migrants through the English Channel, a phenomenon that has been on the rise over the past two years, has been a source of constant tension between London and Paris. Recently has also created controversy between France and Italy, with the new government in Rome, led by Giorgia Melloni, raising the issue of burden-sharing for migrants trying to land on the Iberian Peninsula via the central Mediterranean route following events off the Mediterranean coast in early November.

For several days, several hundred migrants have been stranded off the coast of Italy on humanitarian ships, including the NGO SOS Mediterranee’s Ocean Viking, triggering a diplomatic row between France and Italy. Three ambulance ships rescuing migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from the North African coast to Europe were given permission to dock in Italian ports in early November, but Rome allowed only some of the people on board, especially women and children, to disembark.

Rise Above, the ship of the German NGO Lifeline, was able to let all 89 migrants on board disembark in the port of Reggio Calabria. The German-flagged vessel Humanity 1, belonging to the NGO SOS Humanity, was allowed to dock in Catania – Sicily, to disembark 144 people, mainly women and minors, but not 35 men. Geo Barents, the Norwegian-flagged ship of the humanitarian organisation Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), also docked in Catania, disembarking 357 people, but another 215 migrants on board were refused entry to Italian territory.

However, the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking of the European NGO SOS Mediterranee was not given the green light to dock in Italy. 

Human Rights Watch has criticised Italy’s refusal to accept all the passengers on the ships, saying in a statement quoted by the international press that it “puts migrants at risk” and violates “Italy’s human rights obligations”. They stressed that international and European law “guarantees the right to seek asylum and prohibits collective expulsions”.

“This extreme solution is the result of a critical and dramatic failure by all EU member states and associated states to facilitate the designation of a safe place” for the accosting, the NGO insisted in a statement. Faced with SOS Mediterranee’s request to provide a safe port for the Ocean Viking to dock, France announced that it would allow the ship, “exceptionally”, to dock in one of its ports and also denounced the “unacceptable behaviour” of the Italian authorities, which is “contrary to maritime law and the European spirit of solidarity”, a French government source told AFP.

The head of the Italian government, Giorgia Meloni, thanked France for accepting to receive the Ocean Viking in one of its ports. But Italy’s message was clear, as Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajan explained: the strategy is to get other European countries to play their part in this issue and it has worked, according to the AFP interview.

“We are grateful to France, which has shown its willingness to take a decision that reduces the pressure on Italy, demonstrating that it understands the need for a firmly united approach among EU countries,” Tajani said.

For his part, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, in a press release, described France’s initial reaction to the issue as “completely incomprehensible”: “France’s reaction to the request to receive 234 migrants, when Italy has received 90,000 this year alone, is completely incomprehensible,” he said.

Piantedosi also called for “greater solidarity on the part of European countries in receiving migrants”, pointing out that the countries under whose flag the humanitarian ships sail must also assume their responsibility.

“What we don’t understand is why Italy should willingly accept what others are not willing to accept,” Piantedosi said in his statement.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said France would take back a third of the 234 passengers on the Ocean Viking, which was given the right to dock at Toulon in the south-east of the country.

The refugees received are those “eligible for asylum”, the French minister added, repeating that “those who cannot obtain asylum will return directly to their countries of origin”.

The largest number of people on the humanitarian ship will, however, be taken by Germany, which will receive “more than 80 people”, i.e. a third, with the other eight countries – Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal, Luxembourg and Ireland – which have pledged to receive them in the name of “European solidarity”, taking the rest.

The passengers on the Viking Ocean come from Bangladesh, Eritrea, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Mali, Sudan and Guinea. 

Darmanin’s statement that France will no longer take a planned 3,500 migrants from Italy following the Ocean Viking incident, he also conveyed that France has withdrawn from a deal with some larger EU countries to take smaller quotas of migrants.

The EU’s migration policy since 2015 has focused not only on pressures from right-wing nationalist governments, but also on turning away potential asylum seekers at sea or land borders, discouraging them and barricading EU territory. However, there are still no common rules for distributing people who have managed to enter the EU and apply for asylum by country, despite the European Commission’s attempts to impose some. In theory, the countries where a migrant first enters the EU,  Italy, Greece, Spain, Croatia, Poland, Malta and Cyprus, should be responsible for the asylum procedure and for hosting them. But this regulation, known as Dublin 2, does not work in practice, as evidenced by the huge number of asylum applications lodged in Germany compared to other Western European countries, such as Italy.

The Central Mediterranean route is one of the most popular with migrants and concerns illegal arrivals by sea in Italy and Malta. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa use Tunisia and Libya as transit countries on their journey to Europe. This route to the EU was the most used route between 2015 and 2017. After two years of low numbers of irregular migrants on this route, the number has been increasing since 2020, with record numbers this year.

Nearly 90,000 people have arrived in coastal areas this year since the 1st of January, compared to nearly 56,000 and 30,400 in the same period in the health crisis years 2021 and 2020 respectively.

Since the start of the year, 1,765 migrants have gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea, including 1,287 in the central area, the world’s most dangerous migration route, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Only 14% of migrants entering Italy this year have been rescued and disembarked by humanitarian NGOs, according to the Italian Interior Ministry, but asylum applications are about three times lower than in Germany.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Germany was the EU country with the highest number of asylum applications in 2021 (148,200), ahead of France (89,400), Spain (65,400), the UK (56,500) and Italy (43,800). Thus, of the nearly 90,000 migrants who arrived in Italy this year crossing the Mediterranean Sea, only about half have applied for asylum in Italy, which leads to the conclusion that the others are either living illegally or have continued their journey to northern Europe.

France and Britain last month signed a new agreement on cooperation in the fight against illegal crossings of migrants through the English Channel, a source of constant tension for several years between Paris and London, AFP reports, citing sources at the French interior ministry. Illegal crossings through the Channel, a constant source of tension between France and Britain, have also reached record figures this year: more than 40,000 people, according to a recent announcement by the British Ministry of Defence. But illegal immigration across the Channel has also been a constant source of tragedy: more than 200 people have died or gone missing at sea or on land since 2014 trying to reach England from the north coast of France, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Almost a year after 27 migrants died on the 24th of November 2021 during a shipwreck of their boat off Calais in the worst tragedy of its kind, France and the UK have signed an agreement on combating illegal migration.

The agreement calls for the British to allocate €72.2 million in 2022-2023 to France, which in return will increase by 40% its security forces (350 additional police and gendarmes, including reservists) on its beaches, from where migrants leave for Britain, according to a joint statement by the two countries, seen by the French news agency. The document signed by French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and his British counterpart, Suella Braverman, does not include any quantifiable target for interceptions of ships, as Britain wants, according to the Island’s press. In the text, London and Paris first set the goal of deploying “technological and human resources”, including drones, to the French coast for better detection, surveillance and interception of ships.

The two countries also want to collect and use intelligence, in particular “from intercepted migrants” to more effectively disrupt trafficking networks and deter illegal crossings through a joint effort “at the earliest possible stage” in relation to migrants’ countries of origin and transit. For the first time, teams of observers will be deployed on both sides of the Channel to “strengthen common understanding” between the two countries, “improve the conduct of migrant debriefings” and “increase information exchange”. The agreement also provides funding for the use of “sniffer dogs” to detect migrants in ports and the installation of surveillance cameras at key border crossing points along the French coast. Migrant reception centres are also to be set up in the south of France to discourage migrants crossing the Mediterranean from coming to Calais by “offering them safe alternatives”.

“We all want the situation to be resolved as quickly as possible,” the British prime minister said before the agreement was signed in Sharm el-Sheikh after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.

The number of illegal crossings across the English Channel has soared this year despite the tough policy of the British Conservative government – which made the issue a priority after Brexit.

Former prime minister Boris Jonson’s controversial deal with Rwanda to send today’s asylum seekers arriving illegally on British soil to the East African country has not been implemented. So far, none of these expulsions have taken place – a first flight planned for June was cancelled after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In another setback for British migration policy, the government has dropped its plan to convert a former air force base in northern England into a centre for asylum seekers. On the other hand, the current Home Secretary has sparked controversy by saying in parliament that the influx of migrants arriving in Britain is an “invasion”.

France’s new migration law, which includes a legislative arsenal to facilitate expulsions, redefine the right to asylum and some measures to facilitate integration, has raised concerns from refugee rights advocates, according to a commentary released by AFP.

The French interior ministry gave assurances that “the line is the same”: foreigners are judged “for what they do, not for what they are”. 

“A foreigner who commits serious crimes must leave the territory, but a foreigner who works, integrates, learns French is welcome.”

One of the main measures in the bill in the works is expulsion immediately after a first instance rejection of an asylum application, without waiting for a possible appeal, according to Darmanin. But the text also provides for tougher criminal measures for members of the networks, whose coordinators could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison, compared with the current maximum of five.

“It will simply take away the rights of some people, especially asylum seekers, and give them to others, such as migrant workers,” says Matthieu Tardis, who heads the Centre for Migration and Citizenship at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).