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Macron, Sunak agree plan to reduce English Channel migration

March 10, 2023

At a summit in Paris to reset rocky ties, the UK leader agreed to commit $575 million to increase beach patrols in northern France. Britain has seen a large rise in the number of migrants crossing the sea in small boats.

French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shake hands outside the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 10, 2023
Britain will contribute roughly $581 million to help France to clamp down on migrants crossing the English ChannelImage: Kin Cheung/Pool via REUTERS

Britain and France announced a new deal Friday to help clamp down on migrants and refugees crossing the English Channel in small boats.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron confirmed the $575 million (€540 million) plan after a summit in Paris designed to reset relations after years of bickering over Brexit.

As part of the three-year deal, Britain will help fund a migrant detention center in France, the deployment of hundreds of extra French officers to conduct patrols of the coast and the upgrade of surveillance technology.

France will also contribute significantly more funding, although no details were provided.

Sunak vows to 'break' Channel migrant issue

"We don't need to manage this [small boats] problem, we need to break it," Sunak said at a joint news conference with Macron.

"Today, we have taken cooperation to an unprecedented level... to put an end to this disgusting trade in human life."

Britain's conservative government is under intense pressure to do more to stop people from making the journey from the French to the UK coast in dinghies and small boats.

Over the past few years, the use of small vessels has become more popular for migrants than stowing away on trucks or trains using the Channel Tunnel or crossing by ferry.

The English Channel is just 21 miles (around 33 kilometers) wide at its narrowest point but is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

The sea conditions often make the crossing perilous and at least four people have died in recent years.

Migrants risk their lives to get to the UK

Traffickers exploit thousands of migrants

More than 45,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Britain by boat in 2022, up from 28,000 in 2021, according to UK statistics.

Despite the increase, two previous deals to beef up enforcement measures, particularly on the northern French coast, have had limited success.

One of Sunak's predecessors, Boris Johnson, announced plans last year to deport migrants to Rwanda, but the measure was shelved over legal issues amid accusations of cruelty toward those seeking refuge.

This week, Sunak's government presented new legislation that will instead  ban migrants arriving by small boats from seeking asylum.

If passed by Parliament, new arrivals will be detained and sent to a third country deemed safe, although the plan won't apply to unaccompanied minors.

The proposed law has been criticized by rights groups as well as the United Nations children's and human rights agencies.

France and the UK are also keen to dismantle organized crime groups that migrants often pay thousands of euros for a place on one of the boats.

Under the new plan, the two countries will send officers from Britain's National Crime Agency and its French counterpart to countries along the routes favored by people traffickers.

Sunak keen to mend ties after EU divorce

Friday's meeting was the first summit of Europe's two main military nations in five years. 

Ties between the two countries have often been rocky since Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016.

"It was not a summit like others. It was a summit of new ambitions," Macron said at the news conference.

Sunak acknowledged that the "relationship between our two countries has had its challenges in recent years," but that the talks marked a "new beginning, an entente renewed."

UK-French relations hit rock bottom under Johnson's leadership amid post-Brexit wrangling over fishing rights and other issues.

His successor, Liz Truss, ruffled feathers in Paris last year when she said the "jury is out" on whether Macron was a friend or a foe.

When Truss was ousted after just 45 days in office, Sunak's calm and steady hand helped to bolster ties both with France and the EU.

Britain back in the fold?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has also brought Britain closer to its European neighbors in support of Kyiv, and, on Friday, France and Britain said that they would jointly train Ukrainian marines.

"We want Ukraine to win this war. We are absolutely united on this," said Sunak, adding that it should be Kyiv that chooses when any peace talks start.

Sunak's trip also comes two weeks before King Charles III travels to France and Germany for his first state visits since becoming monarch, in further British efforts to build bridges with European neighbors.

mm/fb (AFP, AP, Reuters)