A preventable tragedy in the Channel

The grief over the drowning of 27 migrants crossing the Channel in a small boat to the UK is magnified by the knowledge that this disaster was all too predictable, and ought to have been preventable. Today’s poisonous politics of migration mean it often takes a tragedy to galvanise action. The hope is that this incident will finally trigger effective efforts to stem the flow of refugees risking their lives to travel from France to Britain. There is no guarantee. Yet failure will leave open the danger of further, and worse, calamities.

Political finger-pointing by London and Paris serves little purpose. Both countries share responsibility for this week’s loss of 17 men, seven women — one pregnant — and three children. Britain’s efforts to deter asylum-seekers by creating an unwelcoming environment and helping to fund French patrols have failed. The number of migrants reaching Britain in small boats has tripled this year to 26,000. That reflects, in part, a success in choking off other routes, such as stowing away on lorries. It shows, however, that the determination to reach the UK is undimmed, and providing ever more business for people smugglers.

France says it has made strenuous efforts to curb crossings and clamp down on criminal gangs. Reports of French officers looking on while overloaded inflatables set sail suggest not all personnel are so committed. France has a moral responsibility to people on its soil not to let them be exploited and board unsafe boats that may carry them to their death.

Both countries are guilty, too, of allowing differences — over Brexit, fishing rights, or the Australia-UK-US security pact that excluded Paris — to stand in the way of co-operation. Real progress in tackling the cross-Channel migrant problem relies on setting aside such divisions. Britain’s Conservative government in particular — though it has genuine concerns over post-Brexit trade arrangements with Northern Ireland — should refrain from picking fights with the EU and with France as an apparent political stratagem.

A two-pronged approach is then needed. The first is to create safe, legal channels for people to claim asylum in Britain. Migrants cannot now do so unless they are already in the UK, but have no route to arrive except on small boats. Boris Johnson’s government is under pressure from rightwing populists such as former Ukip leader Nigel Farage to take a hardline approach. Yet setting up legal corridors and streamlined processes would enable it to appear tough on immigration while still allowing a more humane and effective way of discouraging use of boats and the danger to life this creates.

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The government could point to the fact that, while Channel crossings contributed to an 18 per cent rise in UK asylum applications to 37,562 in the year to September, this is less than half the peak of two decades ago. It is a fraction of France’s 87,180 and Germany’s 113,625 in the year to June.

Some migrants, fearing rejection or seeking to circumvent processing, will still plump for illegal routes. The second prong must therefore be more concerted and co-ordinated efforts to curb trafficking — not just between the UK and France, but the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Britain will also need to seek to regain the right to return asylum seekers to the first EU country they reached, lost after Brexit.

Preventable human tragedies can provide a moment for politicians of stature to confront the failures, divisions and prejudices that may have allowed them to happen. The UK’s Johnson and French president Emmanuel Macron have an opportunity to show that they, too, can rise to such a challenge.

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