Britain must take responsibility for the Channel crisis and make itself “less attractive for migrants”, France’s interior minister said on Sunday at an emergency meeting from which Priti Patel was excluded.
Gerald Darmanin and his European counterparts agreed at the meeting to dispatch an EU spy plane to monitor the shores of the English Channel for migrant activity after 27 people died en route to Britain last week. The aircraft will "fly day and night" over the area from France to the Netherlands, Mr Darmanin said.
Earlier on Sunday, Ms Patel had met with the Dutch migration minister Ankie Broekers-Knol and stressed "the need for European partners to work together" through shared intelligence and joint police initiatives, according to her office.
Both agreed that returns agreements are essential for breaking the criminal business model.
A Whitehall source said: “We will this week have more talks with counterparts on how we can work together to resolve this Europe wide crisis. Priti’s nationality and borders bill is the first step in addressing the broken asylum system and the pull factors it creates.”
Mr Darmanin said the meeting, to which Ms Patel was disinvited, "was not anti-English. It was pro-European". "We want to work with our British friends and allies," he added.
"Britain left Europe, but not the world. We need to work seriously on these questions... without being held hostage by domestic British politics."
In a joint declaration, France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands vowed to "strengthen their operational cooperation" against people-smuggling gangs, but also to "improve joint cooperation with the United Kingdom".
Ylva Johansson, the EU's home affairs commissioner, suggested that Frontex could also deploy its "standing corps" in northern France, as well as the agency's spy plane, to help tackle the crisis.
She said Frontex's surveillance operation would better help the EU and France understand how the people-smugglers are helping people leave the bloc for Britain.
The European Commissioner also called for greater cooperation with the UK to end the crisis. She added: "We need to work together with the UK to address this. I think this is an area where we can have an exchange of information on intelligence. We need to have a common approach on how to address these organised criminal groups that are smuggling."
France is concerned that its efforts to crack down on people-smuggling gangs is being undermined by the criminals taking advantage of open borders.
Mr Darmanin claimed French authorities had arrested 1,500 smugglers and saved 7,800 migrants since the beginning of the year. However, he said Britain must also act to make itself less economically attractive for would-be asylum-seekers.
France’s border police have warned that people traffickers are more frequently using Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands to send people across the Channel. As a result, Paris is seeking to secure further international cooperation to tackle people-smuggling gangs.
“The organisation of these crossings has become resolutely professionalised… the fight against these international structures makes cooperation between countries concerned essential,” a note by the French border police, reported by Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper, revealed.
The document, entitled “Migrant smuggling to the United Kingdom – 10 months 2021”, sets out that 35,224 migrants had tried to cross in small boats to Britain so far this year, compared with 2,468 over the same period in 2019.
French officials warned of “structured Iraqi-Kurdish groups that organise themselves in a hierarchical and compartmentalised way” to facilitate the crossings.
A mixture of Covid reducing cross-Channel traffic and separate crackdowns on migrants hiding in lorries has driven up the number of people attempting to enter Britain via small boats, the note added.
“2021 records an impressive increase in the number of events observed (+40 per cent) and even more in the number of migrants involved (+160 per cent),” it said.
The high success rate of these boats has created a “magnetic effect”, helping gangs lure migrants to Calais with the promise of onward travel to Britain. Local police sources say many of the migrants are offered “free passage” in exchange for “agreeing to work for these networks”.
It is believed crime gangs are ordering boats from China to Germany before the vessels are carried by mules to the French coast. Many of the migrants travel from nearby Belgium before setting off on the dangerous journey to avoid detection by local law enforcement officers.
The mounting migration crisis has driven another diplomatic wedge between London and Paris, following months of cross-Channel spats over Brexit, fishing rights and defence contracts.
My letter to President Macron. pic.twitter.com/vXH0jpxzPo
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) November 25, 2021
Ms Patel, who was excluded from the meeting after Paris took umbrage to Boris Johnson sharing a letter to Emmanuel Macron on social media, held separate talks with her Dutch counterpart.
The Home Secretary warned that failure by EU politicians to co-operate would lead to “even worse scenes” in the Channel this winter.
UK Government sources welcomed the plans to deploy a Frontex surveillance plane while noting the UK had previously offered such an aircraft.
Ministers believe the picture painted of the UK labour market ignores stringent rules on right to work, right to rent and other immigration checks.
However, they accept the UK asylum system is far too generous. Ms Patel has described it as "broken."