Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Channel Is Now a Charnel House

When at least 27 migrants, mostly Kurds, drowned last month, it was the culmination of a century-long Anglo-French tragedy.

By , a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.
An inflatable craft carrying migrant men, women, and children crosses the shipping lane in the English Channel on July 22.
An inflatable craft carrying migrant men, women, and children crosses the shipping lane in the English Channel on July 22.
An inflatable craft carrying migrant men, women, and children crosses the shipping lane in the English Channel on July 22. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

On Nov. 24, an inflatable dinghy sagging beneath the weight of more than two dozen men, women, and children capsized in the rough waters of the English Channel. At least 27 of the passengers, mostly Kurdish migrants seeking to reach England from France, drowned.

It did not take long for the British and French publics to forget this event. As for their politicians, although they were unanimous in recognizing the event as a tragedy, they remain less certain about fixing it. With eyes firmly on their own bases, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron continue to point fingers at each other.

Yet this discord between the British and French leaders goes beyond political imperatives at home. It also reflects what their great tragic playwrights, William Shakespeare and Jean Racine, already understood: Tragedy happens when characters are driven by forces, internal and external, they cannot control.

On Nov. 24, an inflatable dinghy sagging beneath the weight of more than two dozen men, women, and children capsized in the rough waters of the English Channel. At least 27 of the passengers, mostly Kurdish migrants seeking to reach England from France, drowned.

It did not take long for the British and French publics to forget this event. As for their politicians, although they were unanimous in recognizing the event as a tragedy, they remain less certain about fixing it. With eyes firmly on their own bases, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron continue to point fingers at each other.

Yet this discord between the British and French leaders goes beyond political imperatives at home. It also reflects what their great tragic playwrights, William Shakespeare and Jean Racine, already understood: Tragedy happens when characters are driven by forces, internal and external, they cannot control.


As with French classical tragedy, last month’s disaster unfolds in five acts. The first act stretches back to 1938, when the combination of Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria and orchestration of Kristallnacht spurred a massive influx of refugees across the French borders. Though long considered a haven for refugees, France had become, by decade’s end, a hell for those seeking asylum.

In response to the demands of the Third Reich, as well as deepening xenophobic sentiment at home, the centrist government of then-French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier repudiated the republican tradition of welcoming immigrants. New refugees were turned away, while many already in France were either turned out of the country or, as with Arthur Koestler and Hannah Arendt, turned over to recently constructed detention camps. (Koestler described his experience in the aptly titled The Scum of the Earth, while Arendt archly observed in her article “We Refugees” that history had forged a new kind of human being: “the kind that are put into concentration camps by their foes and internment camps by their friends.”)

With the fall of the Third Republic and advent of the Vichy regime in 1940, the policy of anti-immigration took another turn. When the influx of refugees fleeing Germany had stopped, the Vichy government turned its attention to those who had arrived much earlier and been granted citizenship. Alongside its battery of anti-Semitic legislation that effectively transformed French Jews into second-class citizens, the government assumed the power to strip citizenship from anyone granted it after 1927. When it came to immigrants, French republicanism and French authoritarianism could be equally callous.

By the end of the century, the port city of Calais was the stage for the second act. A growing number of refugees from war-torn Kosovo, along with equally desperate Kurds and Afghans, streamed west in the hope of gaining asylum in France or Great Britain. As a busy terminal for both ferry and train traffic—the Eurotunnel opened for business in 1994—Calais proved an irresistible magnet for the refugees. In 1999, responding to the pressure of asylum seekers, the French government and Red Cross transformed an empty warehouse in the nearby town of Sangatte into a refugee center.

By 2002, the center, designed to house 600 refugees, was staggering under the weight of more than 2,000 men, women, and children. But this, critics argued, was also by design. As it had in 1938, the French Republic had again made an abrupt about-face on immigration policy. In the early 1980s, the humanitarian strain in French immigration policy dominated, with the government granting asylum to around 80 percent of approximately 20,000 applicants. By 1999, though, the numbers were reversed: 80 percent of some 30,000 applications were now denied.

Unable to travel legally to Great Britain, the refugees denied asylum could not remain legally in France. At the same time, they were increasingly unable to tolerate the squalid conditions at Sangatte. As the deputy mayor of Calais subsequently affirmed, local officials were determined to maintain a “certain level of pressure” on the refugees. “We want them to send a message back that it’s useless to come to Calais,” he said. As a result, refugees increasingly undertook the dangerous route of passing through the Eurotunnel. In 2002, then-French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, under intensifying pressure from Great Britain, announced the center at Sangatte would be closed. The aim, he declared, was to “put an end to a symbol of the illegal magnet effect in the world.”

When the curtain rose on the third act, everything and nothing had changed. Sangatte had been shut down for a year, but as for the flow of refugees from the east, not so much. At the 2003 Franco-British summit held in Le Touquet—a seaside resort best known, until then, as the pre-war tax haven for P.G. Wodehouse—the two governments signed a series of accords. Though largely overlooked at the time, the agreement concerning immigration turned out to be the most fateful. Since Great Britain was not a member of the visa-free Schengen Area, the Labor government of then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair demanded new measures to stanch the Channel traffic of illegal immigrants. France’s Gaullist then-president, Jacques Chirac, agreed to set up “juxtaposed national control bureaus”: an awkward name for an awkward arrangement. British and French immigration officials would carry out their duties at one another’s ports of entry.

In effect, in regaining a foothold over a thin slice of the land they had lost during the Hundred Years’ War at Calais, the British agreed to foot the bill for the costs France would incur from upping its anti-immigration efforts.

As the fourth act of this tragedy revealed, the agreement underwent several modifications over the following years to respond to the evolving—i.e., worsening—refugee situation. The tourniquet applied at Le Touquet to illegal immigration led to a hemorrhage, not a healing of the humanitarian crisis. While the origin the refugees changed—there were now increasing numbers from Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan—the reasons for their flight did not: chronic war and catastrophic conditions.

During the next decade, an encampment of several thousand refugees—baptized “the jungle”—took root at the outskirts of Calais. These roots were repeatedly pulled up by police, who periodically entered the encampment with dogs and tear gas, destroying the makeshift tents and dispersing the manhandled inhabitants. Each time, however, refugees returned to the area within a matter of weeks to rebuild their shelters. In 2016, as the level of crimes committed both against and by the refugees climbed and pressure from Great Britain increased, then-French President François Hollande’s Socialist government again dismantled the jungle, redistributing its inhabitants to shelters located across France.

Yet their place was soon filled by more recently arrived refugees, also drawn by the proximity of the encampment at Calais to the white cliffs of Dover. In 2017, representatives of France’s Défenseur des droits (Defender of Rights), an independent agency created in 2008 by a constitutional revision and charged with guaranteeing human rights, visited the encampment. Appalled by the material and sanitary conditions in the camp—the absence of shelter and children sleeping on the ground—and what it heard of persistent violence from locals, the committee reported that the “violations of fundamental rights [were] of an exceptional and unprecedented gravity.”

Yet Macron’s centrist government failed to respond to the report in a substantive manner. The battered Touquet accords had been broken by Brexit, which meant France was locked into an asymmetrical relationship with a non-EU state. Also, Macron was preoccupied by the presidential and legislative elections of 2022. Instead of addressing the report head-on, Macron shifted his stance on immigration towards the right. In the wake of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, he gave a televised address, declaring, “We must anticipate and protect ourselves against major irregular migratory flows.” At the same time, a presidential advisor confessed to L’Express, on background, that “the degree of tolerance for immigration in our country keeps sinking.” Clearly, Macron has concluded that if he wishes to lead, he has no choice but to follow.


The sinking of inflatable dinghies filled with human beings, coupled to the sinking of the public’s willingness to welcome these same human beings, ushers us into the fifth and final act of the tragedy. Among the migrants who drowned that night on the Channel were a Kurdish mother, Khazal Ahmed, and her three children. Interviewed by a journalist at an encampment a week before she and her family died, Ahmed was asked if she was frightened by the prospect of crossing the Channel. “Of course, I am,” Ahmed replied, as she warmed her hands over a makeshift fire. “But look at how we live,” she added. “We cannot stay here.”

Ultimately, they could no more stay on that side of the Channel than they could reach the other side. In an interview with a Kurdish media site, Rudaw, one of the dinghy’s two survivors said the migrants had called the French authorities when the dinghy’s pump failed. “They said, ‘You’re in British waters,’” and then said to call the British. When the migrants did so, the British authorities, stating the dinghy was in French waters, replied the migrants needed to call their French opposites. By the time ships arrived on the scene, the curtain had already fallen on this particular tragedy. As long as these governments refuse to rewrite their roles, similar tragedies will continue their run on the watery stage of the Channel.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.

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