Senior French ministers have accused the UK of operating a labour market akin to slavery and called on London to open safe routes for migrants, as the two governments continued to deflect blame for last week’s drownings in the Channel.
The criticism came hours after France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, held a crisis meeting with European ministers and border agencies to discuss the migrant emergency around the Channel ports.
The UK home secretary, Priti Patel, was disinvited to the meeting after Boris Johnson riled President Emmanuel Macron by publishing a letter calling on France to accept people being returned, and calling for British troops or border police to patrol French beaches.
Darmanin said cross-Channel migration was “first and foremost an English issue” and Britain must “accept its responsibilities”.
“Today, people who want to seek asylum in England have no other means than to cross the Channel. This is because there is no legal way for immigrants to go to Great Britain and because you can work without identity papers in England and that creates a demand,” Darmanin told BFM TV.
He added that France accepted 150,000 asylum applications a year, compared with 30,000 in the UK.
France’s European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, also hit back at the UK, accusing it of having “an economic model of, sometimes, quasi-modern slavery” that he said encouraged desperate people to attempt perilous Channel crossings.
“We’re asking the British to change their [legal] framework,” Beaune told France Inter. He said exploitation of illegal workers was “more prevalent in the UK because there are fewer checks” and the UK needed “more humane” labour market regulation to discourage migrants.
Darmanin, who gave an interview to the Guardian after Sunday’s meeting, reiterated that France was not prepared to be treated as the UK’s “vassal” and was fed up with the double talk coming from the British government.
“I’m very happy to discuss things … on the condition that we have a normal relationship and a spirit of equality,” he said on Monday.
France convened the meeting of ministers responsible for immigration from Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as the European commissioner for internal affairs. Representatives from the EU’s agency for law enforcement cooperation, Europol, and the EU’s border management agency, Frontex, were also invited to the hastily arranged summit in Calais on Sunday.
Last Wednesday 27 people died in the Channel, a tragedy that has prompted a blame game between London and Paris.
Patel was due to attend the summit but the invitation was rescinded because of Johnson’s letter, published on Twitter before it was seen by Macron. Afterwards, Darmanin said France and its EU partners were in agreement over new measures to clamp down on people smugglers.
On Sunday a French newspaper claimed British police and intelligence services had stopped cooperating with their counterparts on investigations aimed at tracking and arresting people smugglers.
The Journal du Dimanche said it had seen a report from the Police aux Frontières (PAF) stating: “We have to report that the British services are not sending us intelligence information that is either useful or usable … our requests do not receive any reply … information sent is not always taken into account”.
It claimed that in June UK intelligence services were sent the names of two people-smugglers who had organised a Channel crossing by a group of Sudanese in December 2020 and had just left France to travel to the UK. The UK services did not acknowledge receipt of this information and had not replied, stated the report.
French police say they have broken up 20 smuggling rings organising Channel crossings, almost all organised by Iraqi-Kurds. They say a number of the human traffic ringleaders are based in the UK and Germany and recruit desperate people who are offered a free crossing in return for working for the network.
“Boats that come from China and able to carry up to 60 migrants are stocked abroad (mainly in Germany) then transported to the coastal area by carriers who are rarely aware of the details of the organisation (they are helping). Other accomplices are tasked with bringing the migrants to the water’s edge or delivering petrol cans and lifejackets,” read the report.
Beaune also criticised Britain over the Channel fishing licence row, saying “the British know that the ball is in their court”. Talks are being held this week between the UK and France, and Beaune warned: “If there’s no massive gesture by the 10 December, we’ll stop the talks.”
He added: “Unfortunately, I believe that the failure of Brexit is masked by a smokescreen of making Europe a daily punching ball.”