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Channel drownings a disgrace to Europe

Barbara Wesel Kommentarbild App *PROVISORISCH*
Barbara Wesel
November 26, 2021

At least 27 people died as they were attempting to cross from France to England in a rubber dinghy. This tragedy is the result of a collective failure, says Barbara Wesel.

Großbritannien Migranten werden gerettet und nach Dover gebracht
Image: Henry Nicholls/REUTERS

The degree of despair that would drive you to clamber into an unseaworthy rubber dinghy in northern France on a cold November evening to set off for the English coast is barely imaginable. Particularly when you think about mothers having to persuade their children that this journey was not dangerous and that they would soon arrive safe and sound.

When such a crossing goes horribly wrong, as it did on Wednesday, the politicians concerned shed crocodile tears. United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron declared how appalled and deeply saddened they were by what had happened and promised to somehow stop the deadly crossings.

One day after the tragedy, the British mass circulation newspaper Metro asked "Why didn't France stop them?" London has been pointing its finger at its neighbors and ignoring its own responsibility.

Upon leaving the European Union, the UK became responsible for its own borders, a responsibility more fraught than Brexit propaganda made out. The UK no longer has any right to expect assistance from France or Belgium, and it has also lost the right to return migrants arriving from those states.

UK shirks responsibility

In London, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel had proposed that Border Force guards should turn around small boats in the English Channel and send them back into French waters. To their credit, the Border Force refused to implement the hardliner's plans. Then, the government said it was exploring ways of processing asylum seekers abroad — in Albania, for example. That was another trumped-up tale. Tirana angrily denies such claims. And let's not forget that the European Union as well once proposed this pipe dream.  

Barbara Wesel
Barbara Wesel is a DW correspondent in Brussels

But now Boris Johnson has vowed to leave no stone unturned in the fight to smash people-trafficking gangs. Thpis is, as is so often the case with Johnson, nothing more than empty talk. The people-smugglers are based on the continent, and if he really wanted to succeed, he would have to work together with his neighbors. The French president was right when he recently accused the British of flip-flopping between "cooperation and provocation." You cannot childishly start a small-scale fishing war and, at the same time, expect close cooperation with Paris. 

And finally: The migrants want to get to the UK because they have relatives there; or, because they believe the English language and large exile communities will help them have a better life. But the UK government is striving for a migrant quota of zero. There are hardly any remaining official ways of getting into the country. The message sent is that people fleeing from war and political persecution should apply for asylum elsewhere. The UK has pulled up the drawbridge. 

Half-hearted French intervention

The French government, on the other hand, dithers between looking the other way and conducting police raids. Last week, another camp on the northern French coast near Grand Synthe was cleared. In such cases, the migrants simply pick up their tents and move a few dunes further on, and most of them do not give up on their plans to somehow get into the UK.

On the other hand, the French coast guard has also stopped thousands of crossings this year. Yet they do not feel duty bound to keep in France those who are determined to leave.

The chances of being granted asylum, or a reprieve, in France are not actually all that bad. But the myth of the UK as the promised land is deeply ingrained in many people's minds. The French government should perhaps work together with nongovernmental groups to impress on the migrants just how dangerous the crossing is. Such messages could be shared in social media.

Migrants in tent camp being cleared by police
Illegal camps like this one in Grande Synthe, near Calais, are regularly cleared by the French policeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/La Voix Du Nord/M. Demeure

French elections dampen action 

If the migrants were to stay in France, this would mean that Paris would have to take in a few more thousand people, provide for them, check their asylum applications and perhaps deport them to their home countries — a process that can be notoriously difficult. No one wants to squabble over this job, particularly with elections not far off. Many in French politics think that if asylum-seekers see France as merely a transit land, well, so be it.

The rapid arrest of a number of human smugglers has shown, however, that the police does have intelligence on this scene. It is up to the police and the judiciary to step up and put these unscrupulous profiteers out of business. 

Europe's eternal failure

But, at the end of the day, the failure of Europe is behind the deaths in the Channel; not to mention the drowning of more than 1,500 people in the Mediterranean this year alone. Some countries are blocking the adoption of any type of reasonable and humane mechanism for taking in migrants and distributing them throughout Europe. At the same time, a more general shift to the right means that borders are becoming increasingly militarized and sealed off. Tragedies like the one on Wednesday are an inevitable consequence.  

And those who have died in Polish forests can be counted along with them. The deaths of all these people are simply accepted as a matter of course. Allegedly, all that voters want is for migrants to be kept out at all costs. Such rhetoric in the ongoing debate about the migrant crisis at the border between Belarus and Poland shows that the political winds have turned in the EU. The only talk is of a "hybrid attack" or "hybrid warfare," while the people freezing in Polish forests are barely worth a mention. In terms of showing humanity, the European Union's new migration policy is simply a disgrace.

EU leaders debate border security

This article has been translated from German.