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Calais in 2021: A raw part of Anglo-French Relations

Roar writer Alessandro Kosak on Calais migrant crossings and the continued tensions between French and British Governments.

Since migrants first settled in Calais in the first rendition of the “Jungle”, the entire town and border has become highly politicised, domestically in Britain and diplomatically between age-old rivals. Successive Conservative governments have each sought to make an example at the Calais border, frequently approving border packages that have enabled French authorities to harass, displace and discriminate against migrants and refugees alike.

One of the more recent agreements, a £54 million package approved in July 2021, was not paid in October, held ransom by Home Secretary Priti Patel unhappy with the frequency of border crossings. October and November saw a steady increase in migrant crossings, which brought the total to 22,344 on November 11.  By the end of the year, it was reported that 28,300 migrants had crossed the channel from France, more than three times the number of migrants in 2020.

On November 24,  2021, at 2 pm, 27 people tragically perished in the largest migrant drowning in the channel to date. This occurred in the midst of another bitter dispute between the French and British governments, both blaming the other for the rising number of crossings. In the aftermath of the disaster, Prime Minister Johnson tweeted a letter that called for joint border patrols and for France to accept returned migrants that had successfully crossed, two demands that had been rejected in previous negotiations by the French Government. This Trump-Esque tactic did not go down well with Emmanuel Macron who stated in stern terms, “We do not communicate from one leader to another on these issues by tweets and letters that we make public.”

Diplomatic dialogue has clearly been frosty these past few months, with the British government opting for unilateral, informal statements not cleared with France, whilst Britain is accused of not being “serious” by Macron and other French officials.

Priti Patel continues to be a key figure in these disputes as home secretary, and her very political fate could be tied to the situation in Calais. Reports from within the Tory party seem to suggest many MPs, including Prime Minister Johnson, have not been impressed with Patel’s response. After being frozen out of talks with other European ministers on responses to people-smuggling, Patel used a commentary piece in The Sun to call for more collaborative measures on border control in an ironic display that in many ways symbolises Britain’s current relationship with the EU.

Back in December, Patel attempted to suggest a policy of turning migrant boats away, producing understandable outrage at the considerable danger involved for passengers. As Home Secretary, she is under increasing pressure to severely reduce migrant numbers from Calais, which is disheartening considering how fragile the situation is for displaced people.

France and Britain are clearly operating through different paradigms at the moment. At least when both countries were in the EU, there was some form of uniformity of policy that protected a diplomatic relationship that has historically been frosty. Now old rival tendencies have resurfaced, and diplomatic misgivings, such as the AUKUS debacle which left France feeling humiliated, have brought new tension. Anglo-Franco relations are at a tenuous point and Calais seems to have become the flashpoint where neither country wants to be seen to have “lost” any deal and both continue to blame the other.

However, human life is at stake and has been for the best part of a decade. Calais cannot afford to be at the centre of a diplomatic tussle whilst vulnerable people continue to take perilous risks to seek asylum. Securitisation has clearly not worked and the human rights abuses that have occurred as a result of British and French policies are archaic at best, and barbaric at worst. It is unlikely things will change in 2022, and Calais will continue to be a serious source of acrimony for these two countries whose relationship is in a period of post-Brexit transitioning.

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