The U.K. government is hoping Brexit will bring greater powers to send migrants back across the English Channel to the Continent.
But as Britain prepares to exit the EU-wide migration pact in favor of securing bilateral deals with EU countries, there’s no guarantee that other capitals will agree to London’s aims.
Amid fresh attention on crossings from France to the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday condemned the activities of the “cruel” criminal gangs who were putting lives at risk by taking people on unsafe boats, hinting at the need to change the law.
Chris Philp, the British minister for immigration compliance, met his French counterpart in Paris Tuesday to put pressure on France to do more to prevent the crossings. The Home Office has also requested the assistance of the Royal Navy to deal with the issue.
“Any border is a shared responsibility and the United Kingdom and France today renewed and reaffirmed their absolute commitment to make sure this border is properly policed and this route is completely ended,” Philp told Sky News. “I’m also delighted that the French made a commitment to appoint their own commander to take responsibility in this area which is a very important step forward.”
Migrants attempt to cross the Channel every summer. More than 4,000 have completed the crossing this year so far; 597 people were intercepted between Thursday and Sunday alone.
“French authorities … [have] intercepted well over a thousand people so far this year. But the sheer numbers crossing the Channel are completely unacceptable to the French government and unacceptable to the U.K government so it’s quite clear that more needs to be done,” Philp said.
He added that the “new, comprehensive action plan” the two sides are working on will aim to “make this route unviable … [so that] migrants will have no reason at all to come to France in the first place.”
The Home Office considers the Dublin system “inflexible” and “rigid,” and complaints it is being “abused” by migrants.
For now, asylum requests by people reaching U.K. shores are regulated under the EU’s Dublin III Regulation, intended to speed up asylum procedures and reduce the duplication of claims. The regulation allows an EU country to send requests to other member countries to take charge of an asylum seeker or take them back if that’s where they first entered the EU.
But the Dublin regulation will no longer apply to the U.K. beyond December 31. London wants to replace it with bilateral deals which it hopes will make it easier for the British government to send migrants back to the EU.
“Whilst we are bound by Dublin for the duration of the transition period, the U.K. will be able to negotiate its own bilateral returns arrangements from the end of this year,” a Home Office spokesperson said.
The Home Office considers the Dublin system “inflexible” and “rigid,” and complaints it is being “abused” by migrants and their “activist lawyers” to “frustrate the returns of those who have no right to be in the U.K.”
The British government also complains that although the rules require migrants to claim asylum in the first country they reach, in reality many are waiting until they reach Britain to do so.
However, immigration experts are skeptical about the likely success of replacing the Dublin Convention with a package of bilateral deals.
“The fact is the Dublin Convention is widely recognized as outdated and of limited utility anyway, but the prospect of replacing it with something better from the U.K.’s point of view by negotiating bilateral agreements with 27 countries seems extremely implausible,” said Jonathan Portes, economist and senior fellow for the UK in a Changing Europe research program.
Steven Peers, professor of EU law and human rights at the University of Essex, said the willingness of other EU countries to negotiate bilateral deals will depend on the outcome of the EU-U.K. future relationship talks and the climate that negotiation creates between London and the EU capitals.
“It is true to say that you could renegotiate something different but there are absolutely no guarantees that the EU countries are going to give you what you want and they may well expect something else in return, either the EU as a whole or individual countries,” he said.
“The overall politics of the relationship between the U.K. and the EU are bound to have some kind of effect on bilateral relations, especially with countries like France and Ireland which are the biggest players here,” according to Peers.
Experts warned that in the absence of EU-wide rules covering the U.K. and bilateral deals, the U.K. might need to resort to informal arrangements to take migrants back to EU countries, opening the possibility of a “legal vacuum.”
The U.K. and France struck a joint action plan in January 2019, but it is considered insufficient. Deals will also have to be agreed with the rest of the EU countries, particularly with those more often involved in the asylum claims of people intercepted in the English Channel such as Ireland and Greece.
Tony Smith, former director general of UK Border Force, said Brexit offers an opportunity for negotiation. He called for a treaty with France to send illegal migrants back to France instantly even if they are rescued by British vessels in the Channel.
“We need a bilateral agreement between our government and the French government that any vessel picking up will take them back to the port from which they departed,” he told the PA news agency. “The law needs to change in order to do it.”
This story was updated with comment from the U.K. immigration minister.
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