Protesters outside the Home Office in London on Thursday
Protesters against the government’s policy on immigration and border controls outside the Home Office in London on Thursday. At least 27 people drowned in the Channel as they tried to reach England on Wednesday © AFP via Getty Images

Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron were on Thursday struggling to co-ordinate a coherent response to the deaths of 27 migrants who had drowned trying to cross the English Channel from France the previous day.

The UK and French governments, hampered by deteriorating relations since Brexit, blamed criminal networks of people-traffickers for the tragedy and vowed to crack down on the gangs as would-be asylum seekers risked their lives in small boats.

“We need stronger European co-operation on this, given that France is a transit country,” the French president said during a visit to Croatia.

On Thursday, a further 62 migrants reached the UK in small boats, while France stopped another 30.

Tensions continued between the UK and France yesterday with Priti Patel, the British home secretary, saying the onus was on the French government to stop people crossing the Channel. “I’ve offered to work with France to put officers on the ground and do absolutely whatever is necessary to secure the area so that vulnerable people do not risk their lives by getting into unseaworthy boats,” she told the House of commons.

Macron added that France was asking for “additional mobilisation from the British. Because I remind you, when it comes to this, we are holding the border for the British.”

France’s president said co-operation needed to improve with Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK and the European Commission. Jean Castex, his prime minister, is inviting ministers responsible for immigration to a meeting in Calais on Sunday to discuss the crisis.

Johnson wrote to Macron on Thursday evening setting out five proposals that the UK prime minister said could alleviate the situation, including reciprocal maritime patrols in each other’s territorial waters.

Johnson added that a bilateral agreement to return migrants back to France would have an “immediate and significant impact” on those trying to cross the channel.

“If those who reach this country were swiftly returned, the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be significantly reduced,” Johnson wrote.

Both Johnson and Macron are exposed to criticism from anti-immigration politicians over their perceived failure to stop thousands of asylum seekers and other migrants arriving from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Two migrants rescued on Wednesday and recovering from severe hypothermia were from Iraq and Somalia.

Macron has moved to harden his migration policies ahead of his campaign for re-election next April against anti-immigration candidates such as the polemicist Éric Zemmour and far-right politician Marine Le Pen.

Bilateral co-operation between London and Paris has been made difficult by post-Brexit arguments, and sometimes mutually hostile comments, between French and UK leaders over everything from the migrants to fishing licences, Covid-19 policies and the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.

Gérard Romiti, who heads the French fisheries committee, on Thursday said fishermen would use vans to block three ports — Calais, Saint-Malo and Ouistreham near Caen — and the motorway approach to the Channel Tunnel on Friday as a “warning shot” to the UK over its refusal to grant enough licences to French fishing boats after Brexit.

UK immigration figures released on Thursday showed the effect of small-boat migration on the UK asylum system. It received 15,104 applications in the July to September quarter, 60 per cent higher compared with the same quarter of 2020. Applications for the year to September were up 18 per cent on the year to September 2020, to 37,562.

However, for the year to June — the last period for which comparisons are possible — the 37,235 applications received still put the UK only fourth in Europe for the number of asylum applications received, well behind 113,625 in Germany and 87,180 in France.

Hundreds gathered in Calais and Dunkirk on Thursday evening to mourn the deaths of those displaced people at sea as they attempted the journey across the channel, with candles lit and speeches given in English and Arabic.

Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president and chair of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, said he was completely “fed up” with the lack of support being given to people in perilous situations in camps around the city and that increasing policing of the 130km coast was “not the solution”.

He said the millions of euros being spent on policing should instead be used to create an international centre for migrants, financed by countries across Europe, that would house prospective asylum seekers and help them process their applications. It was a “failure of the EU and the UK” that a system like this had not yet been created to treat displaced people in a humane way, he said.

Additional reporting by Eir Nolsoe and Domitille Alain in Paris

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