The continuing illegal immigration crisis in the English Channel has sparked an unusually heated exchange of words between the governments of Britain and France.
At least 14,100 people have crossed the English Channel to the UK aboard small boats this year, according to data compiled by the PA news agency. The figure so far is already nearly 6,000 higher than the number of people who made the crossing in the whole of last year.
According to Britain’s Home Office, 785 illegal immigrants crossed the Channel from France into the UK on Monday. It was the second highest daily total of the year, following the single-day record of 828 people set last month. Hundreds more have made the crossing since.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Boris Johnson came under pressure from Conservative MPs to take strong action and send the boats straight back to France.
Johnson said efforts to stop the crossings depended “to a large extent” on the ability of the French authorities. But he vowed to use “every possible tactic at our disposal” to deal with the issue.
After discussing the matter with French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Wednesday while attending the G-7 interior ministers’ meeting in London, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel called the talks “constructive,” but said she made it clear to her French counterpart “delivering results and stopping crossings were an absolute priority for the British people.”
In July, the two countries announced an agreement on tackling the problem, under which the UK would pay France £54 million ($75 million) to more than double the number of police patrolling French beaches.
But according to The Times of London, Patel told MPs on Monday she was ready to withhold the cash unless there was an improvement in the number of illegal immigrants intercepted by French authorities.
The row was further escalated on Thursday, when British media quoted an unnamed UK government official as saying the government had approved plans to push illegal immigrant boats back into French waters.
The Epoch Times asked the UK Home Office for confirmation, but a spokesperson said, “We do not routinely comment on maritime operational activity.”
Darmanin, the French interior minister, reacted strongly to the alleged threats, saying he had clearly told Patel the UK must stick to its commitments.
“France will not accept any practice that goes against maritime law, and will not accept any financial blackmail,” Darmanin wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
The UK prime minister’s official spokesman declined to confirm the reported change of tactics against the immigrant boats on Thursday, but he said, “Without getting into operational matters, as part of our ongoing response we continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options to find ways of stopping small boats making this dangerous and unnecessary journey.”
“When we are seeing record numbers still being able to cross the Channel, we need to make sure that all the requisite options are available to our Border Force staff, and that’s what we will continue to do,” he said.
PA and Reuters contributed to this report.