UK and France are butting heads over migration. Is Brexit to blame?

At the end of November, a boat filled with over 30 migrants seeking a better life in the United Kingdom set off from the coast of northern France. But the passengers’ dreams were cut short when the waters of the English Channel proved too much for their flimsy dinghy. A total of 27 people died.

In the days following the incident, diplomatic tensions between the two countries rose to new heights, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron went back and forth over who was to blame.

The tragedy is hardly the first time France and the U.K. have been faced with the challenge of migration. The neighbors have long struggled to create a lasting and effective legal framework to tackle the issue, and Brexit looks to be an additional challenge as the countries seek new solutions.

What is the migration crisis all about?

The U.K. has long been seen as an attractive destination for economic migrants and asylum-seekers, whether it’s to join family, seek economic opportunity, or escape crisis. Since the 1990s, displaced people have been arriving in northern France, primarily the port town of Calais, to attempt the channel crossing.

Migrants have tried hiding in trucks and clinging onto trains, but the British government has invested in high-security fencing and security cameras to protect the ports and Eurotunnel. Now the migrants are paying people-smugglers to take them across the channel in small boats. In 2021 alone, more than 25,700 people made the 21-mile journey by boat – three times more than the previous year.

Why is migration such a problem now?

The short answer is Brexit. When the transition period of Britain’s departure from the European Union ended on Dec. 31, 2020, so too did its commitment to the Dublin Regulation – which set terms for returning asylum-seekers to safe EU countries through which they’d traveled. Now any asylum-seekers who reach the U.K. from France are “stuck” there, insofar as the two countries don’t have an agreed legal framework to send them back.

Further complicating matters is the U.K.’s proposed Nationality and Borders bill, which critics say penalizes refugees seeking asylum in the U.K. Those found entering illegally could face up to four years in prison under the new measures. Meanwhile, the French government has struggled to process asylum claims – over 80,000 were received in 2020. Applications can take years in some cases, and there is not enough emergency housing.

“The British government has made it more difficult for migrants to enter the U.K., so they’re taking greater risks,” says Paul Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Nottingham. “Meanwhile, the French are not compelled by law to keep [migrants]. But the bottom line is, the people who left France want to be in Britain.”

How might France and Britain resolve the conflict?

France has accused the U.K. of stoking the issue. But it has not been the only sticking point in post-Brexit negotiations. The two governments have been at odds over fishing licenses in shared waters as well as trade agreements with Northern Ireland.

In order to move forward on all of these issues, the U.K. will have to maintain close ties with Europe post-Brexit, “which is exactly what Mr. Johnson does not want,” says Christian Lequesne, an expert in French and EU policy at Sciences Po in Paris.

It’s especially challenging at a time when leaders on both sides of the channel are focused on other matters. Mr. Johnson is struggling to contain record-breaking COVID-19 cases, and Mr. Macron is busy with his new role as rotating EU president while also campaigning for his next French presidential bid.

Professor Smith predicts that Mr. Macron will let the current crisis ease before proposing new measures. Still, the human aspect of migration will inevitably push the issue up the agenda in both countries.

“With migration, you can have tragic consequences, which makes it much more sensitive than fishing rights [or trade wars],” says Dr. Lequesne. “It’s not possible for the U.K. to ignore what is going on in Europe after Brexit. … They have public policies to manage and need to find ways to collaborate.”

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