Tragedy of Calais: asylum in question for Paris and London

Editorial of the “World”. They were mostly Kurds, from Iraq or Iran, and dreamed of living in England. Their trip ended in a dramatic way when, Wednesday, November 24, a fishing boat discovered about fifteen bodies floating off Calais. At least twenty-seven people, including seven women, drowned in the English Channel.

This sentence, which sums up the most serious of the migrant shipwrecks between France and the United Kingdom, should never have been written. This unbearable tragedy puts these two countries to shame. It reflects the bankruptcy of their border management policy. But the disaster is also European, since the Channel, since Brexit, constitutes an external border of the European Union (EU).

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Since 1999, more than 300 migrants have died on the coast, according to humanitarian associations. The Channel has been an open wound in the heart of the European continent for more than twenty years. Migrants have died crushed by trains or suffocated in trucks while trying to cross through the tunnel. Since 2018 and the closure of the accesses, they embark on frail inflatable boats and sometimes drowned, victims of the cynicism of smugglers but also of the irresponsibility of Paris and London.

Conceited rhetoric

Shocked by Wednesday’s drama, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson accused France of “Not doing enough” efforts to prevent migrants from reaching its shores. “France will not let the English Channel become a cemetery”, proclaimed President Emmanuel Macron. Like all of their predecessors, they vie with each other in the fight against smuggling gangs and the protection of the border.

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After Wednesday’s tragedy, it would be time to admit the vanity of this rhetoric. If the desperate crossings multiply, if the smugglers proliferate, it is that there is hardly any legal way of immigration in the United Kingdom. It is above all that the extravagant Touquet agreements signed by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2003 make France the guardian of the border with the United Kingdom. And that these agreements actually allow this country, one of the founders of the Geneva Convention on Asylum of 1951, to turn back asylum seekers on a massive scale.

The fundamental question is not that of the smugglers but, from now on, that of the division of asylum seekers between the European Union – France in particular – and the United Kingdom. Emmanuel Macron, who threatened to denounce the Touquet agreements when he was minister, must activate this lever in order to bring the British to negotiations on this subject. Criteria and procedures for examining asylum requests at the border must be jointly defined. The EU, of which France will assume the rotating presidency from January 2022, must support these advances if it wants to get out of an aberrant situation where migrants, in Calais, are prevented from leaving its soil.

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The status quo is no longer an option, neither for London, nor for Paris, nor for Brussels. These bodies floating in the icy water of the English Channel, in the heart of one of the richest regions of the world and of a continent with a history too full of tragedies of forced exiles and deportations, are horrifying. In a world of increasingly disputed borders, how can the two allied and friendly countries of the United Kingdom and France continue to put on the distressing spectacle of their deadly neighborhood feud?

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Tragedy of Calais: asylum in question for Paris and London