Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

The battle across the Channel
Sensemaker audio

The battle across the Channel

The battle across the Channel

Some days, more than 1000 migrants cross the English Channel in small boats. Could the UK and France stop them if they wanted?

Claudia williams, narrating:

Hi, I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, why the cross-Channel migrant fiasco is a failure of statecraft.


“Jubilant as they emerge from the dunes with a craft that dwarfs them. This is the moment these migrants realise nothing now stands in their way.”

ITV News clip

Every day hundreds of people – and sometimes a thousand or more – cross the English Channel in small boats to get to the UK. 

They cram into rubber dinghies and risk their lives.

“This launch is utterly brazen. There is not a single policeman around here. They’ve waited until daylight, and we’ve probably got 50 migrants – many of them who claim they’re from Iraq – determined to cross the world’s busiest shipping lane.”

ITV News clip

On Monday the UK home secretary Priti Patel and her French counterpart Gérald Darmanin made an agreement to prevent 100 per cent of migrant crossings.

Two days later, the sports chain Decathlon said it would stop selling canoes in northern France… to prevent people buying them to get to Britain. 

So that’s that, then. Problem sorted. 

Except we know it isn’t. Migrants will continue to cross the Channel in dangerous conditions – and the British and French governments will yet again announce new measures to tackle the issue.

So isn’t it time we got serious about finding a solution?

“Illegal migration is a very important problem and issue for our country. It has been an issue for decades and decades…”

Priti Patel interview

Priti Patel is notorious for her hardline stance on migration.  

She talks the talk – but does she walk the walk?

The data might make you think otherwise.

This year alone, around 25,000 people have crossed the Channel in small boats. That’s nearly triple the number who did so in 2020.

And on 11 November, a record number of migrants made it to UK shores. Most come from Iran or Iraq, with a smaller proportion from Sudan and Syria.

They get into boats on the continent. Then, when they’re in the water, the French authorities are unable to stop them under international maritime law.

“The difficulty we have is that the French position on interdiction on the high seas is different to ours. They are not prepared to intercept vessels on the high seas. They are prepared to make sure people don’t drown but they are being shepherded effectively towards UK waters…”

Former Border Force head on Good Morning Britain

But that’s not to say that France is necessarily going to great efforts to prevent migrants from getting into those vessels.

“Police eventually show up an hour after the boats have departed. And there appears to be little urgency to their patrol.”

ITV News clip

And all this is causing a fight between France and the UK.

France’s interior minister has blamed the UK’s gig economy for attracting migrants. While Britain’s Home Office says France is too slow to stop people from leaving its shores.

France says Britain is using it as a “punch-ball in their domestic politics”. UK ministers think France is trying to punish them for Brexit.

Both countries have a vested interest in playing this blame game. 

Boris Johnson can say Britain’s attempts to realise its post-Brexit ambitions are being thwarted by its neighbours. And Emmanuel Macron can play to his own gallery ahead of elections later this year.

But the game has consequences, because it leaves a vacuum for smugglers to exploit people desperate to get to the UK.

And everyone agrees that it would be better if the two countries collaborated instead of throwing grenades at each other. 

So what could they actually do differently?

“There are a range of comprehensive measures that look at not only how we address inadmissible claims, how we reform the system, how we house asylum seekers, how we will remove and return people, But how we will give Border Force more powers as well to deter illegal entry to the UK.” 

Priti Patel interview

Priti Patel’s solution comes in the form of the Nationality and Borders Bill, a controversial set of laws she’s trying to pass through parliament.

It would criminalise people trying to get to the UK illegally. And it could even give the Border Force immunity from prosecution if migrants die during efforts to push them back.

She claims it will clamp down on smuggling gangs. But plenty think that it will instead allow them to flourish – as people are made to rely on them even more.

That’s aside from the fact that the bill is possibly in breach of the UN Refugee Convention.

A different solution would simply be to ramp up efforts to tackle the smugglers.

Britain is using drones, aircraft, and patrol boats to try to stop the crossings. And they’ve even paid the French border police 54 million pounds to help.

But it feels like there’s a lot more both sides could do. 

They have a formidable arsenal of diplomacy, bilateral cooperation, information sharing, security services, police, coastguards and so much else at their disposal. 

At the moment smugglers have pretty huge incentives: they’re being paid as much as 350,000 euros a boat. 

Increasing the risks for smugglers is surely crucial to the solution.

And there also have to be questions raised about the UK’s asylum system.

Minnie Rahman is from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

“I absolutely agree that we need international cooperation with the French authorities but that does not look like abdicating responsibility and expecting the French to take on all of the people who do have a right to have their claims heard in the UK.”

Minnie Rahman on Good Morning Britain

Whether it’s because they have relatives in Britain… or because they speak English… migrants want to come to the UK specifically, smuggling gangs or not.

A recent report found that more than 60 per cent of the people who try to enter Britain on dangerous boat trips are refugees fleeing persecution.

But there’s a severe lack of legal and safe routes to claim asylum in Britain. 

When claiming asylum requires getting to the UK in the first place, you could argue that’s the fundamental reason smugglers thrive in the English Channel.

Until there’s a solution to that… promises of more money, more resources and new approaches… could be seen as empty promises. 

And ultimately, when Britain and France both have their own audiences to please in squaring up each other, you have to ask yourself: is it in the interest of either country to get together and solve the problem? 

This story was written and produced by Xavier Greenwood.