On the Franco-British border: Everyone’s at sea
The widely publicised shipwreck off the coast of Calais on 24 November, which left 27 dead, drew a few crocodile tears from the sharks that govern France and England. A show of hypocrisy that does not hide the truth: the deadly closure of the increasingly militarised maritime border of the Channel are the first responsible.
The French coast
From the beach of Sangatte, on a clear day, the white cliffs of Dover across the Channel are clearly visible. They shimmer about thirty miles away, no more, almost next door. A seductive mirage which no doubt explains why some people mount an attack on the Channel from this well guarded place. It rarely succeeds. “Not long ago, three Sudanese attempted to cross in a kayak in the early hours of the morning, but they were quickly intercepted by the coastguard,” explained Gabriella* of the Watch the Channel collective in early October.
Part of the European AlarmPhone network, which provides telephone assistance to people in distress at sea as they cross the Mediterranean1, Watch the Channel was created in 2018 by French and British activists in response to the increase in attempted Channel crossings. The aim: to give the people concerned, and the associations that help them, as much information as possible to mitigate the risks. Among the instructions contained in the small flyer that the collective distributes to people on the move is this imperative: “Do not try without an engine”. Without an engine, there is a great risk of being carried away much further north by the currents. If drama was avoided for the trio in a kayak that Gabriella mentioned, this is not always the case. On Thursday 11 November, three people were reported missing after setting off in the same type of boat.
Similarly to crossings via ferry or the Eurotunnel, less and less popular because of the quasi-dystopian surveillance techniques that are now deployed to make it increasingly difficult, maritime attempts vary according to multiple factors. The weather, the logistics of the smuggling networks and word of mouth. Among these factors, the constant increase in police harassment in and around Calais is determinative. As a result, attempts are made from ever more remote areas spread along the 130-kilometre coastline facing England, from the Dunkirk area to the Bay of the Somme.
But even if there are numerous successful crossings (around 26,000 people between January and the end of November 2021), as well as rescues (8,200 on the French side for the same period, according to the Maritime Prefecture), the tragedies multiply as winter approaches. Officially three people died and four disappeared between January and mid-November – figures that are underestimated according to Watch the Channel. In addition, rescuers believe they are “on the verge of breaking point”.2 And a chilling piece of news comes at the very moment of writing this article, Wednesday 24 November: twenty-seven more dead in a shipwreck off Calais. Twenty-seven.
The toll could be even higher. Because, unlike in the Mediterranean, here the official sea rescue services are currently carrying out essential work on both sides of the line separating French and English waters. Gabriella recalls the case of this small boat in difficulty on the French side, where two of the occupants were rescued while the others chose to continue, before being rescued later when the situation worsened. But Calais activists fear that the rescue situation will deteriorate. In mid-October, Gabriella warned: “We’re starting to get people saying, ‘We waited for hours to be rescued’. Or both sides passing each other the buck. And as winter approaches and hypothermia cases multiply, we fear even worse tragedies.” She adds: “The political climate in England is not exactly conducive to optimism.” To put it mildly.
The English coast
In the port of Dover, which is much less secure than Calais, there is a secluded area where people picked up by the Border Force are taken. Often disembarked in the early hours of the morning, they are regularly filmed by far-right activists, discloses Mark*, from Watch the Channel, showing me on his smartphone pictures of those in question who, according to another testimony3, regularly “intimidate and harass migrants”. “These people live-stream the arrivals saying that they are part of an invasion”, Mark explains. “Close to [the far-right group] English Defence League, they want to impose the narrative of the Great Replacement. And their narrative clearly has purchase with the government, which has an increasingly extremist posture.”
In October 2020, documents were leaked to the English press concerning discussions at the Home Office to curb sea crossings. Among the plans mentioned: the installation of a gigantic anti-small boat wave machine or the construction of a floating wall.4 These are unrealistic projects, no doubt, but they are moving forward along with other more concrete proposals. Like the possible construction of a detention centre for migrants on Ascension Island, a British overseas territory 4,000 kilometres to the south, in the middle of the Atlantic. The British are in fact coveting the situation at the Australian coastline, where the policy is to send people back to prison-camps outside its mainland. As for Home Secretary Priti Patel’s criminal proposal to push back boats to France, it is being seriously discussed by the British political class and has even led to exercises off Dover, with Border Force jet-skis practising intercepting boats. This is the hallmark of an out-of-control debate in which Patel feels she has grown ten-feet tall.
Home Secretary in the Johnson government since 2019 and muse of the right wing of the Conservative party, Priti Patel is a tough cookie. An admirer of Thatcher, a supporter of the death penalty and a fervent supporter of Brexit, she is the one who best embodies the extreme right-wing nature of the government. She is also responsible for the “Nationality and Borders Bill” currently being debated in Parliament which combines a tightening of the right to asylum with increased criminalisation of people arriving irregularly by boat. Even though the number of asylum seekers fell in 20205 and the country takes in proportionally far fewer new arrivals than its European neighbours, the debate has become so toxic that the inflammatory Patel is accused within her own ranks of being too human rights conscious. A nationalist race to the bottom that is also, unsurprisingly, affecting the situation on the other side of the Channel.
“Calais, tunnelling beneath humanity”. This was the title of the article published in the last issue of CQFD. A cold autopsy of the French state’s hunt for displaced people. Since our visit, it has continued in the midst of general indifference (see in this same issue, “Exiles in the mud and the cold: the state assumes no responsibility“), with the only response being an inflation of security in Calais and elsewhere. In addition to drones and police on horseback patrolling the shores, there is now a race for coastal video surveillance. This development has been documented by local newspapers, such as La Voix du Nord, which published an article on 22 October entitled “The elected representatives of Calais (almost) all in favour of anti-smuggler cameras“, mentioning the disappointment of the mayor of Marck-en-Calaisis: “The only downside is that the installation of four cameras has been proposed. This is insufficient for the politician.” The politician sets the tone: today as yesterday or tomorrow, it is insufficient, we need more and more cameras, razor wire, drones…
On Monday 22 November, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced a plan to provide 11 million euros for equipment: quads, 4x4s and thermal imaging cameras. This is a small part of the 62.7 million Euro package promised in 2021 by the British to fight against illegal immigration. The objective: an ever more marked militarisation of the border, in line with European policies in this area.
Thus, month after month, the spectacle of an invasion staged as unmanageable and requiring an immediate martial response is perpetuated on both sides of the Channel, in a game of political ping-pong that relies on anxiety-provoking symbols and media coverage. “Calais is a highly strategic space in terms of communication, where new security policies are being tested on foreigners”, Juliette Delaplace of Secours Catholique reminded us in mid-October. Put another way by Corporate Watch activists:”[The city] is of fundamental importance as a symbol for anti-migrant propaganda – the perfect scare story that drives the border regime.”6
The umpteenth drama that has just unfolded off the coast of Calais, which for a while will have directed cameras and politicians to the scene, is already part of this security narrative, mixing denunciation of smugglers and calls for Frontex, the armed wing of European borders. One thing is certain: the blood in the Channel will not be washed away by those who shed it.
Through the Looking Glass
The history of the reinforcement of the Franco-British border is made up of multiple milestones, from the Le Touquet agreement in 2003, dividing the roles between the two states (the British finance, the French control) to the Sandhurst agreement in 2018, extending it by tightening the security screws. On both sides of the Channel, the instrumentalisation of the migration topic has developed throughout this period, with obvious electoral aims. We are logically more familiar with the rough contours of this in France. But the English mirror of this growing state xenophobia is just as edifying. In a book entitled The UK Border Regime (2018), Corporate Watch activists detail the successive alliance of "Labour's war on asylum seekers" conducted following the election of Labour's Tony Blair in 1997, and then Theresa May's so-called "hostile environment" policy from 2012. A false construction of immigration as a problem to be solved urgently, carried out hand in hand with a reactionary media and a flourishing security industry, leading to what the collective refers to as a "dramatic escalation of the repression of migrants". The whole thing has since been completed by the triumph of Boris Johnson, the Brexit and the nationalist delusions made in Perfidious Albion. France-England: zero-zero.
- See En mer Égée : “Le bateau a un trou mais les gardes-côtes ne nous aident pas”, CQFD n° 186 (April 2021).
- See Dans la Manche, les sauveteurs au secours des migrants craignent d’atteindre “le point de rupture”, Le Monde (18/11/2021).
- See Channel Rescue, la patrouille citoyenne à l’affût des arrivées de migrants sur les côtes anglaises, InfoMigrants (26/03/2021).
- See No 10 confirms UK offshore asylum plan under consideration, The Financial Times (30/09/Se
- See, for example The Observer view on Priti Patel’s fake migrant crisis, The Guardian (21/11/2021). It states, “The number of people coming here to seek asylum fell by 4% last year and is at most half what it was in the early 2000s.”
- In their book The UK Border Regime, 2018, freely available on the Web.