Why the Channel is ‘at risk of becoming another cemetery’

A recent investigation by a consortium of news organisations sheds new light on increasingly aggressive Franco-British tactics meant to thwart migrant crossings.
A group of people thought to be migrants crossing the Channel in a small boat headed in the direction of Dover, Kent.

By Sarah Schug

Sarah is a staff writer for The Parliament with a focus on art, culture, and human rights.

09 Apr 2024

Last month, a bombshell joint investigation by journalists from the Observer, Lighthouse Reports, Le Monde and Der Spiegel revealed that the French coastguard has been using illegal – and potentially deadly – tactics to prevent small boats of migrants from making their way across the English Channel. 

We’re not at all surprised. The situation at the French-British border has always been catastrophic. But there has been an increase in brutality, says Feyrouz Lajili, a project coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the coastal city of Calais. “Over the last three months, already 10 people lost their lives as a result of ship accidents when last year it was 12 over the entire year. The channel is at risk of becoming another cemetery, just like the Mediterranean,” she adds. 

After British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to “stop the boats” coming across the Channel, the UK and France struck an initial deal in November 2022 for the UK to provide France with €72.2 million to help tackle illegal Channel crossings. The deal included a 40% increase in the number of officers patrolling French beaches, while allowing for specialist UK officers to embed with their French counterparts. In March 2023, Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed on a new pact worth over €500 million to deter cross-Channel migration.

The newly obtained footage, witness testimonies and leaked documents show that in the wake of the agreement, French maritime police have been using aggressive manoeuvres known as so-called pushbacks to force small boats carrying migrants to turn around. 

“Whenever you approach a fragile boat that is absolutely overloaded with human beings in despair, chances are that a tight circle or other counterproductive manoeuvres result in a tragedy, says Juan Fernando López Aguilar, a Spanish MEP for the Socialist and Democrats Group and chair of the parliamentary Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs.

The recent investigation conducted by the consortium of news outlets showed that French police not only threatened migrants with pepper spray and circled boats to create waves to flood them, but even punctured boats so that migrants were forced to swim back to shore. 

Lajili says the investigation’s findings are in line with what MSF has learned from patients on the ground. “We have witness reports from minors telling us about the puncturing of the boats and also an enormous increase of violence on land, which we are extremely worried about,” she adds, referencing law enforcement’s hostile treatment of migrants on the beaches before crossing attempts.

We encounter patients with eye problems due to tear gas, injuries from rubber bullets and dog bites,” Lajili explains, citing one young Afghan man who she says required an operation due to a related hand wound.

While France is not the first EU member state to employ dangerous pushback methods at sea, it constitutes somewhat of an about-face for Paris, which has mainly deferred to international maritime law.

“It is obvious that the conservative government in the UK has been putting pressure on France, says López Aguilar. “When a member state happens to be involved in a situation indicating pushbacks, which are illegal according to international humanitarian law…this is grounds for us to be concerned.” 

Whenever there are any indications of pushbacks, the MEP insists, the European Parliament uses all tools at its disposal to shed light on the situation. “We call the local authorities, the relevant Commissioner, NGOs, we have a special hearing, draft a resolution asking for accountability.  

Still, governments continue to employ these illegal practices. “We’ve seen it in Greece, the Balkans, and now in France. They should be punished and abolished, but that’s not the case today. Instead, it goes on, increasing the already huge danger people are in, says Lajili. 

López Aguilar argues that a long-term, EU-wide approach is necessary to avoid similar incidents. “This entire mandate the European Parliament has been pushing for an EU-wide search and rescue framework, he adds.

According to Lajili, that does not go far enough. Her organisation has called on both the French and British governments to “end to the generalised use of violence at their borders, to establish dignified, respectful reception procedures, and to create legal and safe migratory routes.”

For its part, a spokesperson from the UK’s home office reportedly told the Observer: “An unacceptable number of people are crossing the Channel and we will do whatever is necessary to end these perilous and fatal journeys.”

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