As another body was discovered in the Channel on Friday, the British government is facing mounting criticism over its handling of Channel migrants both as they attempt to cross and after they arrive in the UK.
On Friday, December 10, another body turned up in the nets of a fishing boat just off the French Channel coast. The Maritime Prefecture from the Channel and the North Sea (La préfecture maritime de la Manche e de la mer du Nord) tweeted that the body had been handed over to the maritime police authorities in Calais and an inquiry opened by the Boulogne prosecutors.
"The body had obviously been in the water for a while," said the deputy state prosecutor, Philippe Sabatier, to the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP). Sabatier added that it wasn’t possible at this stage to identify whether the body was that of a migrant.
"The body will need to undergo an autopsy, to establish whether any criminal act has taken place and to determine the possible cause of death," Sabatier told reporters. At that time, he said, DNA would also be taken from the body in order to try and identify them but at the moment, "we cannot tell you anything at all," he concluded.
NGOs criticize French Channel policy
More than two weeks ago, on November 24, a migrant boat capsized and at least 27 people died – 17 men, seven women, two minors and a baby. Following this event, French President Emmanuel Macron assured the French public that he "would not allow the Channel to become a cemetery."
NGOs such as Utopia 56, which work closely with migrants in Paris and Calais, criticized the French government at the time, saying it was in fact their policies of "non-welcome," like frequent camp clearances.
Anna Richel, the Coordinator of Utopia 56 at Grande Synthe, an area between Calais and Dunkirk where large migrant camps regularly establish themselves, told InfoMigrants French that it was the authorities' actions on the French coast which were "pushing people to take risks to cross the Channel."
Who to call at sea?
But it is not just the French authorities that are being criticized. According to the eyewitness testimony of one of the survivors of the November 24 accident, British authorities are also at fault. 21-year-old Mohammed Shekah Ahmad told the Kurdish online newspaper Rudaw that migrants on the boat had called both the British and French authorities in distress.
According to Ahmad, the two countries had bounced the ball back and forth between them instead of immediately initiating a rescue. Ahmad’s testimony joins those of other migrants who have been speaking to the British newspaper The Guardian in recent months.
According to an article published on December 13, several groups of migrants have claimed that even when they believe they may be in British waters, the British authorities have told them to call the French. In some cases, it has been the French who eventually rescued them.
In another example, the Guardian said they spoke to a group who attempted the crossing on November 20. When their boat got into trouble, one person on board told the Guardian, "The English told us to phone the French without even asking for our GPS position. We called the French, they asked for our GPS and told us we were in UK waters. Nobody came to rescue us – neither English nor French. Eventually we called the French organization Utopia 56 and told them our location. They called the French emergency services, who came to rescue us and brought us back to Calais."
Where is the boundary?
Utopia 56 confirmed to The Guardian that a group had sent them distress messages on November 20. However a spokesperson for Britain’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency denied that they would ever redirect emergency calls to the French.
According to The Guardian, the spokesperson said that after receiving "over 90 alerts" in the English Channel area including emergency 999 calls, "every call was answered, assessed and acted upon. There also isn’t a circumstance under which we would ask a caller to call French authorities instead of us," the spokesperson continued.
The article does make clear that it can be difficult to tell in the Channel exactly where the boundary between British and French waters lies. It is not marked on a map and even when the mobile phone signals switch to the other country, it is not necessarily because you have entered different international waters.
Treatment of pregnant migrants in UK
An opposition Labour party MP, Peter Kyle, who represents the south coast constituency of Brighton and Hove, has also written to the government recently to express his concerns about the treatment of pregnant migrant women in his constituency, who are being housed in hotels by the government.
Kyle has previously raised fairly regularly the question of funding and accommodation standards for migrants in the UK, highlighting the treatment of unaccompanied minors, some of whom have been placed in Kyle’s constituency on government orders.
According to another article in The Guardian, Kyle’s letter highlighted the case of a community midwife who had to enter the hotel being used to house migrants in Kyle’s constituency, to visit a pregnant migrant there. Once the midwife arrived, "she discovered that the woman was already 38 weeks pregnant and had not been seen by a doctor since arrival in the UK."
At least five women needed antenatal care
Kyle’s letter says the midwife discovered that the woman was diagnosed as suffering from a pathological fear of pregnancy or birth and her baby was in a breech position, when the feet instead of the head is facing towards the woman’s uterus, which can lead to a difficult birth, potentially with complications.
After this visit, the same midwife discovered, reports The Guardian, that "there were another four women who required antenatal care." The midwife, says Kyle "was required to attend to these women in a communal area and was unable to assess their other living conditions."
Currently, there are three hotels in Hove which are housing migrants and asylum seekers who crossed the Channel in the last few months. A Home Office spokesperson told The Guardian that whilst they could not comment on individual cases, all "asylum seekers in our care have access to medical support if they need it." The spokesperson added that each person was provided with three meals a day and constant access to drinking water.
In parliament, Kyle has asked the Home Office ministers responsible for housing migrants and asylum seekers about the costs of this kind of hotel accommodation and also the conditions in which the migrants are being accommodated. In the last few questions, published by Hansard, the answers from the Home Office minister have declined to answer the questions directly, often citing costs as a reason for the non-provision of an answer.
Questions to the Home Office
On November 17, Kyle asked the Home Office "what the average wait time was for an initial decision in the asylum case made by an unaccompanied minor." On November 22, the Home Office provided an answer via Conservative MP Kevin Foster: "The Home Office is unable to state what the average waiting time was for an initial decision on an asylum case made by an unaccompanied minor...as the Home Office does not publish this information and to do so would incur disproportionate cost."
On November 22, Kyle again asked the Home Office how much Priti Patel’s department had spent on the use of hotels to house asylum-seeking children in Hove since January 2021. On November 25, he was told "accommodation costs are considered to be commercially confidential, therefore the Home Office does not publish this information."
In July this year, Kyle published an open statement regarding his attempts to find out more about the Home Office policy towards child asylum seekers placed in his constituency. He called the Home Office’s lack of response then "a shambolic panic," and claimed they didn’t answer him because they didn’t know the answers. Kyle also accused the government then of creating a vacuum of safeguarding which meant councils like his in Brighton and Hove would have to step in to "clean up a terrible mess of the [government’s] creation."