KENT: Migrants carry children as they are escorted to be processed after being picked up by an RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) lifeboat while crossing the English channel at a beach in Dungeness, southeast England. - AFP

LONDON: Britain and France locked horns yesterday over reported plans by London to turn back boats carrying migrants across the Channel, triggering alarm and anger in Paris. At least 14,100 people have now crossed the Channel to the UK on small boats this year, according to Britain's domestic Press Association news agency - some 6,000 more than for the whole of 2020.

A record 828 people crossed over from France on a single day in late August, as traffickers took advantage of favorable late-summer weather. The growing number of boats is proving increasingly embarrassing for Home Secretary Priti Patel, who has carved out a reputation for being tough on immigration and law and order.

"Taking back control" of Britain's border was a key part of the campaign to take the country out of the European Union in the divisive 2016 Brexit referendum. But several newspapers said she has now secured legal advice and sanctioned the use of "pushback" tactics to turn back the small boats before they reach Britain's south coast. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Downing Street office said yesterday that "it's right that our Border Force has the right range of tactics to address this problem".

Patel has also reportedly threatened to withhold £54 million (63 million euros, $75 million) in funding pledged to Paris to help tackle the issue. However, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said yesterday that France would not accept Britain violating international maritime law. "France will not accept any practice that breaks maritime law, nor any financial blackmail," Darmanin wrote on Twitter, a day after meeting Patel.

France has a policy of not intercepting or turning back migrant boats unless they ask for help, and instead escorts them to British waters. That has stoked anger in Brexit-supporting sections of the British media and the government in London, who accuse France of shirking its responsibilities. France for its part has said it would not make payment "conditional on numerical targets", warning that to do so would damage relations. "Such an approach would reflect a serious loss of confidence in our cooperation," a French interior ministry source said.

No 'silver bullet'

Downing Street insisted that Britain "won't break maritime law" with the new plans. It also dismissed the claims of blackmail, saying "we've provided our French counterparts significant sums of money and we've agreed another bilateral agreement backed by millions of pounds." Britain's reported new strategy has been trialed for months, overseen by the Royal Marines, the Daily Telegraph said.

However, Border Force officials have told ministers the tactic could only be used in certain circumstances and was not a "silver bullet", it added. Johnson on Wednesday told parliament that Britain must use every possible tactic to halt the "vile trade" of traffickers bringing record numbers of migrants across the Channel. Johnson praised Patel for dealing with the problem "in the best possible way, which is to make sure that they don't leave those French shores".

In cooperation with Britain, France has doubled police numbers on its beaches, preventing more than 10,000 crossing attempts. But Johnson added that "clearly as time goes on and this problem continues, we are going to have to make sure that we use every possible tactic at our disposal to stop what I think is a vile trade". MPs are scrutinizing proposed government legislation that would make it harder for those who enter the UK to stay by claiming asylum. Controversially, it would make it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK without permission, angering organizations working with asylum seekers. - AFP