French mayor about returning boat refugees: ‘Outrageous and inhuman’

In France, there are major concerns about the United Kingdom’s plan to return boats carrying migrants to French waters. The British coastguard has been training for months to be able to carry out ‘turnaround actions’ at sea. Jean-Luc Dubaele, mayor of the French coastal town of Wimereux, called the plan “humanitarianly outrageous, truly unbelievable and inhumane”.

More and more people are fleeing from France to England by water. There were already 13,500 this year and only 2000 in 2019. Wimereux, a French coastal town west of Calais, is a popular departure point.

“Today there is an invasion of migrants on our territory,” said Mayor Dubaele. “We are very concerned. Migrant camps have been set up since last weekend. We do not have enough police or personnel to act against them.”

In addition, the French say that under maritime law they are no longer allowed to intervene once the refugees are on the water. And that frustrates the British. Because once the boats have arrived on the English side of the Channel, the British coastguard is obliged to help them.

Mass by boat

The fact that the flow of migrants is now so large is due to a combination of circumstances. It is easier to cross the Channel in summer, when the weather is good and the water is calm. And a few years ago, many migrants still tried to get to England by climbing into trucks. That option has become less popular as trucks are subject to increasingly strict controls.

Most migrants are people from the Middle East and Africa, with an increasing number of women and children. They want to go to Great Britain because family already lives there or because they speak the language well. It is also easier in England to work illegally and the healthcare system is attractive.

Irritation between UK and France

The British already pledged 62.7 million in financial aid to France in June to double the coastguard there. But because the coastline of France is very long, even that doubling cannot stop all boats.

That is why Priti Patel, the British Home Secretary, came up with this new plan yesterday to intercept the boats at sea. The French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, reacted with pity on this today. “France does not accept this kind of practice, which is against maritime law. The United Kingdom must abide by its agreements.”

“The attitude of the British in scandalous,” said Mayor Dubaele. “Just think, those boats at sea, with children. When the tide is out, it’s still okay, but today there are wave troughs of two or three meters. The sea is moving.”

Only if it’s safe

Whether the British plan can actually be put into practice remains to be seen. The coast guard is only allowed to intervene if the boat with migrants is not endangered as a result. And even if the operation can be performed safely, the French must also cooperate.

“You can’t just send a boat back,” said Lucy Moreton of the British Border, Immigration and Customs union. “You have to get approval from the other country. If the French don’t let them in, we can’t send them back.”

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