EU border agency plane to monitor French coast following Channel deaths

Ministers meeting in Calais also discuss using drones and Frontex border guards

Police officers evict migrants from a camp  in Calais, France, on Sunday. Photograph: Louis Witter/Getty Images

Police officers evict migrants from a camp in Calais, France, on Sunday. Photograph: Louis Witter/Getty Images


The European Union’s border agency will provide a plane within days to monitor France’s northern coastline in an attempt to stop people making the dangerous Channel crossing, as the French government insisted it would “not be held hostage” by British domestic politics on the issue.

Speaking after an emergency meeting of EU ministers in Calais that excluded the UK, the French interior minister Gérald Darmanin said France was ready for a serious discussion with Britain on illegal migration, but would not be held hostage by London’s domestic politics.

Mr Darmanin said the EU border and coast guard agency Frontex would provide an aeroplane from December 1st to monitor France’s northern coastline. Ministers also discussed using drones and Frontex border guards, as part of wider efforts to clamp down on people smuggling gangs in northwestern Europe.

France invited representatives from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the European Commission to the meeting, which was called last week after 27 people hoping to claim asylum in the UK died making the perilous crossing, the biggest loss of life in the Channel since such records began in 2014.

Speaking after the meeting, EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said criminal groups were operating on “an industrial scale” to smuggle people to the UK. She called for more police co-operation and efforts to return people denied asylum to their country of origin.

“We need to work together with the UK to address this of course,” she added citing the need for information exchange, intelligence sharing and a common approach to criminal gangs with British authorities.

In a joint statement that focused on security, rather than humanitarian questions, ministers agreed to strengthen police co-operation, intensify information exchange and make use of EU agencies, adding they called “on the United Kingdom to follow a similar approach”.

Smuggling networks

The French government has said five suspected people smugglers arrested near the Belgian border last week had bought unspecified materials in Germany. People seeking to reach the UK often come to France via Belgium to find the shortest crossing point.

Sunday’s meeting focused on smuggling networks, who charge from €3,000 to €7,000 for the journey across the Channel. Mr Darmanin said a car with German license tags was seized in connection with the investigation.

British home secretary Priti Patel had been due to attend the meeting but was disinvited after prime minister Boris Johnson published his proposals to tackle the issue in a letter to Emmanuel Macron that was released on Twitter before the French president had received it.

Mr Macron said Mr Johnson’s methods were “not serious”. The French government objected to the prime minister’s ideas, including a proposal for all people who cross the Channel to be sent back to France, but also the fact the letter was made public.

Mr Johnson’s call for an agreement to return asylum seekers to the EU – a right the UK lost after Brexit – “wasn’t discussed in a concrete way” said one source.

Relations between France and Britain have hit a low point, with simmering disputes over post-Brexit fishing licences and wider EU-UK relations.

The diplomatic spat came as more details emerge of the people who lost their lives in the Channel last week. They included a 45-year-old woman from the Iraqi Kurdish town of Darbandikhan and her three children, a 22-year-old daughter and two sons aged 16 and seven.

Most of the 27 people who drowned in Wednesday’s tragedy are believed to be Kurds from Iraq. Families in the region hope that bodies of their loved ones will be repatriated, but officials said they have yet to have confirmation of those dead from the French authorities.

France says it has saved the lives of 7,800 people since the start of the year and arrested 1,500 people smugglers. The French government insists there needs to be a European solution.

Also taking part in the meeting were directors from Frontex and the EU police agency, Europol.

EU member states can call on these agencies and the commission for emergency funds, staff and equipment, such as drones, to patrol the border.

– Guardian