British border officials could begin patrols in northern France as soon as next week under plans put forward by Boris Johnson in a letter to Emmanuel Macron.
The Prime Minister set out his proposals – which could also see British vessels operating in French waters – as he told the French president that “we must go further and faster, together” to tackle the migrant crisis.
The Home Office said officials would be in Paris on Friday for talks, with Priti Patel heading to Calais on Sunday as efforts to address the problem intensify in the wake of the tragedy which saw at least 27 people die while attempting to cross the English Channel.
President Macron said he was requesting “extra help” from the UK on Thursday as authorities revealed that pregnant women and children were among those who died when a boat sank while crossing to the UK on Wednesday.
The Prime Minister said the plan, which includes joint patrols to prevent boats from leaving France and a bilateral returns agreement, would have “an immediate and significant impact” on crossings.
He also suggested that the agreement would be in France’s interest by breaking the business model of criminal gangs running the people-smuggling trade from Normandy.
Under Mr Johnson’s proposals:
– Joint patrols would prevent more boats from leaving French beaches.
– Advanced technology such as sensors and radar would be deployed to track migrants and people-trafficking gangs.
– There would be joint or reciprocal maritime patrols in each other’s territorial waters and airborne surveillance by manned flights and drones.
– The work of the Joint Intelligence Cell would be improved with better real-time intelligence sharing to deliver more arrests and prosecutions on both sides of the Channel.
– There would be immediate work on a bilateral returns agreement with France, to allow migrants to be sent back across the Channel, alongside talks to establish a UK-EU returns agreement.
Mr Johnson called for “urgent progress” on joint patrols of UK Border Force officers and French gendarmes, or the joint deployment of private security contractors.
“We are ready to begin such patrols from the start of next week and to scale up thereafter.”
The Home Secretary will send officials and law enforcement officers to Paris on Friday to intensify co-operation and intelligence sharing.
She will personally visit Calais on Sunday for talks with French interior minister Gerald Darmanin and counterparts from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.
Mr Johnson said he was ready to upgrade this meeting to a full summit of the countries’ leaders.
Writing on Twitter, the Prime Minister said: “If those who reach this country were swiftly returned, the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be significantly reduced.
“This would be the single biggest step we could take together to reduce the draw to Northern France and break the business model of criminal gangs.
“I am confident that by taking these steps and building on our existing cooperation we can address illegal migration and prevent more families from experiencing the devastating loss we saw yesterday.”
The UK has been frustrated by a lack of co-operation from the French, with efforts to put British boots on the ground so far rebuffed by Paris.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the letter to Mr Macron “reveals how little has been achieved and the scale of Government failings”.
He added: “It should have not taken such a tragedy for the Prime Minister to recognise that more needs to be done. We need less rhetoric and more action.”
The scale of the problem was further illustrated by new figures from the Home Office showing asylum claims in the UK have hit their highest level for nearly 20 years, fuelled by soaring Channel migrant crossings and a rise in numbers following the coronavirus pandemic.
As French politicians pointed the finger at UK authorities for failing to tackle the issue, two more small boats carrying desperate individuals were believed to have arrived on British shores.
One group wearing life jackets and wrapped in blankets were seen huddled together on board an RNLI lifeboat before disembarking in Dover on Thursday morning.
High winds put a stop to the crossings later in the day.
The French prosecutors’ office investigating the incident on Wednesday said the dead included 17 men, seven women and two boys and one girl believed to be teenagers.
A joint search and rescue operation by the French and British authorities that was launched after a fishing boat spotted people in the sea off France was finally called off late on Wednesday.
The French authorities have arrested five suspected people traffickers in connection with the incident.
The French prosecutors’ office said magistrates are investigating potential charges of homicide, unintentional wounding, assisting illegal migration and criminal conspiracy.
The Dover Strait is the busiest shipping lane in the world and has claimed the lives of many people trying to cross to Britain in inflatable dinghies.
More than 25,700 people have made the dangerous journey to the UK in small boats this year – three times the total for the whole of 2020, according to data compiled by the PA news agency.
Figures released by the Home Office on Thursday showed that more than 37,500 asylum claims were made in the UK in the year to September, which is the highest level for nearly 20 years.
The backlog in cases also reached its highest point since comparable records began, with more than 67,500 asylum applications awaiting a decision at the end of September.