A migrant carries her children after being rescued while crossing the English Channel. Credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

November 26, 2021   7 mins

On Wednesday afternoon at about 2pm, a long, narrow inflatable boat, designed for calm lakes or quiet rivers, sank ten miles off the coast of France. The craft, supposed to carry half a dozen people, was transporting as many as 50 asylum-seekers — mostly Iraqi or Iranian Kurds, people of the mountains and the desert.

The boat was heading vaguely north-west towards the English coast, crossing one of the busiest and most treacherous seaways in the world. The sea was calm; the weather fine but very cold.

French coast-guards believe that this strange craft — like a child’s trike on a motorway — was either run down or overwhelmed by the wake of a freighter about one hour after leaving a beach near Dunkirk. There were 27 bodies recovered from the sea, including 17 men, seven women and three teenagers. One of the drowned women was pregnant. Two men were rescued. At least another 20 people may have drowned.

Even the provisional death toll makes this the greatest single calamity since the so-called “Calais migrants” started to climb aboard small boats to try to reach England in 2018. Yet the story of the Calais migrants goes back not three years, but almost three decades. I have been writing about them for 24 of those years.

When the Calais saga began, in the early Nineties, the migrants were mostly Bosnian refugees from the Yugoslav civil war. They were followed by Iraqis, Kurds, Pakistanis, Afghans, Eritreans, Syrians, Somalis — the human flotsam of successive crises or wars in Europe, Asia and Africa, washing up against the English Channel.

It is a complex story which is habitually simplified by British politicians and some in the British media. France’s record is not unblemished, but that has nothing to do with the cunning Gallic cynicism of British media myth. I made up my mind years ago about who was responsible for the never-ending Calais crisis. We all are. No one is. Everyone is partly right; everyone is partly wrong.

The migrants, or asylum seekers, have good reason to go in search of new lives, whether they are genuine refugees or (as the British government and press insist) merely illegal, economic migrants. Britain, of course, has good reason to want to maintain control over its own borders. It is absurd to suggest, as some volunteer groups do, that all who arrive should be admitted. But the French — notably the people of the Pas de Calais — also have good reason to believe that they have been troubled for three decades by what is, ultimately, a British problem.

The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, presents the events in a simpler way. The fact that 27 people drowned is a tragedy but it is mostly the fault of the French, he said. The British popular media is even more convinced where the guilt lies. “This is on you, Macron,” was the splash headline on MailOnline yesterday. If the website wants to increase, rather than reduce, the trickle of migrants now reaching Britain from France (and it is a trickle not a flood), the best way of doing so would be to carry on insulting and angering the French.

The Calais crisis can only be managed. It cannot be solved. And like it or not, it can only be managed with the help of France. For the past 18 years, Britain has been sheltered from the full force of the successive waves of migration reaching Europe by two barriers. The first was the French government and the French police. The second was the English Channel.

In 2003, President Jacques Chirac signed a treaty with then Prime Minister Tony Blair at Le Touquet, just south of Calais, which in effect moved the south-eastern English border to France. All passport checks were moved to the French side of the Channel. France agreed to accept British cash to toughen its defences against illegal migration to England (mostly stowaways on trucks and freight trains). As a result, migrants wanting to claim asylum in Britain (as is their right under international law) could not do so because they could not reach British soil.

The second barrier — the English Channel — stood more or less unchallenged for years because the migrants were scared of the sea. That terror lasted while large chinks remained in the Franco-British border controls, the Calais port and the Channel tunnel fences. Gradually those chinks have been identified and closed.

This is not mentioned by the British popular media or the Government but the number of migrants reaching Britain — mostly from France — is not increasing. The opposite is true. There were 80,000 in 2002. That fell to 18,000 in 2010. There were 29,000 in 2020, after the boat traffic began.

The Calais migrants started to overcome their fear of the sea in 2018 because they had to. Other ways of reaching England had been closed off, mostly by the diligence of the French. Once the migrants overcame their terror of the sea, yesterday’s tragedy became inevitable. Of course, the people smuggling gangs are partly to blame. They exist because other methods of crossing the 30km of sea between Pas de Calais and Kent have been hammered shut. In sum, blaming France or President Emmanuel Macron for what happened on Wednesday is as foolish as blaming the water in the Channel.

That isn’t to say that France doesn’t deserve its share of the blame for the muddled policies of the last 30 or so years. But France has, in effect, been protecting Britain from even a small amount of migration, at Britain’s request. If Paris now chose to end that policy — to repudiate the Treaty of Le Touquet as many French politicians are demanding — Britain would face the full force of Europe’s wider migration crisis for the first time.

That would also cause problems for France. But they wouldn’t be nearly as serious as those in Britain: the makeshift camps of migrants would move from Calais to Folkestone and Dover. Presumably neither Boris Johnson nor MailOnline would welcome such an outcome.

I know what the objections to my narrative will be: why should Britain take any illegal migrants? If these people are seeking asylum from persecution or war, why do they not do so in France? Why are the French authorities incapable of stopping something so obvious as a small inflatable boat with 50 people aboard from setting sail from Loon Plage near Dunkirk? Surely this is all about Brexit and France wanting to punish Britain?

I have spoken over the years to dozens of migrants, to senior French officials, to senior British officials, to humanitarian volunteers. I have witnessed the opening of Sangatte refugee camp in 1998; its closure at Britain’s insistence in 2002; the clearing of “the Jungle” , a squalid informal in the dunes and scrubland north of Calais, in 2009; the creation of a semi-official replacement called “Jungle 2”; its bulldozing by the French government in 2014. Most of the questions above have existed from the beginning. This “crisis” began long before Brexit.

The British media in recent days has shown images of French police standing aside while migrants set off in flimsy boats towards England. The French authorities have yet to explain these pictures. I expect some French police are less than zealous when confronted with large groups of migrants. But to suggest that it is official or unofficial French policy to let migrants cross is false. If that were the case, why have all other safer, illegal routes been so successfully closed? If that were the case, why do French police clamp down so brutally on migrant encampments, confiscating tents and even sleeping bags?

In my experience, the policy and practices of successive French governments on the Calais migrant crisis have been muddled and unpredictable. France has alternated between crackdowns (after Britain complains), and compassion (when human rights groups point out excesses). Taken as a whole, however. France has been guarding Britain’s border, with a large degree of success and a growing amount of exasperation.

It is impossible for the French to police every metre of the 100km of the Pas de Calais and Nord coastline without immense resources. French officials day that 60% of attempted crossings are stopped. Britain offered to give an extra £54m in July, but has so far handed over only £20m. French officials reckon it already costs them €120m a year to “police Britain’s frontier” of which Westminster covers only about 20%.

Meanwhile, serious efforts have been made to secure small boats and to prevent the sale of inflatable craft in shops in the Calais area. But shops in Belgium are only a short drive away. The “boat” which sank on Wednesday is believed to have been bought in Germany.

Yet parts of the British media accuse the French of encouraging asylum-seekers to try their luck in Britain, instead of France. This is nonsense. In 2020, France dealt with 80,000 asylum applications and the EU as a whole 416,000. The UK dealt with 29,000. The great majority of the people who illegally (and invisibly) cross French land borders every day are people who speak a little French and have family or contacts in France. They want to stay in France.

A minority, the Calais migrants, come to France because they want to reach the UK. A very small minority of this minority are people who have had asylum requests turned down in EU countries. When their camps are cleared by French police, they are offered a chance to go to a holding centre many kilometres away and apply for asylum in France. All but a handful refuse.

Why are they so determined to go to Britain? Because they speak a little English; or they have connections in the UK; or they have been persuaded that the UK, without ID cards, is an El Dorado for migrants.

I have spoken to many migrants over the years. One sticks in my mind. Adamkhan was 34. He had been a maths teacher in a primary school in Peshwar in Pakistan. He fled after he was threatened by the Taliban for promoting “western education”.

When I spoke to him at a squalid camp near Calais port in 2014, he was walking with a crutch after injuring his leg fleeing from police while trying to board a lorry. He said: “Most of the immigrants here… want to go to England because they speak a little English and because they think they can work there.”

“I know the UK is a crowded island and no one wants us. I know the French authorities have a very difficult job. Conditions in these camps are inhuman. But what is the solution?”

There is none. European countries can improve their external border protection, but many migrants will still get through. A small percentage of them will always try to go to Britain.

More from this author
The Calais crisis can't be solved

By John Lichfield

But there can be better management of the crisis. The French can, perhaps, try harder to block the beaches. Britain could agree to process some asylum requests on the French side of the Channel. But Boris Johnson’s suggested solution — British police on the French beaches — could never be accepted and would not work.

The Calais crisis cannot be solved in Calais because it is not a Calais problem. It is a small part of a European, or global, problem of displacement of peoples by war or famine or misery.

The danger, from a UK viewpoint, is that the problem will grow much worse. There is already a rising drumbeat in France — on show in the speeches of candidates in April’s presidential election and in the well-argued columns of Le Monde — which calls for a repudiation of the Treaty of Le Touquet.

France, the critics say, is complicit in a situation which is legally doubtful under international law: Britain has an international obligation at least to consider asylum requests — and France is preventing asylum-seekers from even reaching Britain to make them.

The more the British government and the British media insults France, the more that drumbeat will grow. Further calamities in the Channel could make the pressure irresistible. Lifting the barriers would not be an easy decision for the French government. It would be portrayed in Britain as an act of war. It might attract even more migrants to the Pas de Calais.

Whatever happens, there is one certainty: the present situation — Britain relying on France while insulting the French — is untenable.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.