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What does the new UK-France Sandhurst Treaty say and is it Brexit proof?


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The UK and France have agreed a new Sandhurst Treaty on the management of their shared border. We’ve heard the spin from Macron and May, but what has actually been agreed and will it have a life after Brexit?

Given how central the issue of asylum and refugees was in the referendum campaign — remember Nigel Farage standing in front of the “breaking point” poster? — it has been somewhat surprising that we have heard so little from the government on its plans for a future asylum policy.

The text of the new treaty was released today, 19 January 2018, and here we take a detailed look.

Building on rather than replacing Le Touquet

Firstly, the new Sandhurst Treaty builds on rather than replaces the earlier Le Touquet Treaty, agreed by then Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett back in 2003.

Le Touquet in effect exported the UK border to France, enabling our immigration officials to interview and refuse entry to travellers to the UK before they set foot on British soil. This meant that travellers did not need to be detained and physically removed from the UK and it prevented a person who is refused from being able to claim asylum in the UK.

It is easy to see why the government was pleased with Le Touquet. It was hard to see what the French got out of the agreement, though, other than a lot of barbed wire and thousands of migrants who wanted to somehow reach the UK. With the UK’s vote to leave the EU, doubt was cast on the future of the Le Touquet Treaty, which although a bilateral treaty that is not part of EU law, did depend on the good will and co-operation jeopardised by Brexit.

So the UK government will be pleased and relieved that Le Touquet stands and that the cost is relatively slight: £45 million towards supporting the French costs of the agreement plus the transfer of some migrants from France to the UK.

High on aspiration, low on detail

Much of the text of the treaty is very vague indeed. The parties agree to “enhance cooperation” and “work together to reduce migratory pressure” and so on and so forth. These are very far from being clear, defined and measurable targets. However, we do get an idea of the general future wishes of the parties:

  • Reduce number of migrants attempting to cross the border.
  • Changes to the transfer of asylum seekers between the UK and France, primarily one imagines from France (where the migrants are generally based) to the UK. There is some specific detail on this, as we shall see in a moment.
  • Renewed efforts to remove “a significantly increased number” of asylum seekers from France to countries of origin or “to a country where they are legally admissible”. This may be a reference to other EU countries such as Italy and Greece but could conceivably include countries such as Turkey.
  • Combat organised crime rings, fraud and the illegal movement of goods and persons, as well as discourage illegal immigration, through “a programme of mutually agreed specific measures.”

The reader is left with the impression quite a lot has been agreed that is not actually reflected in the treaty text itself.

Brexit proof?

Brexit gets a specific but admittedly brief mention in the preamble:

nothing in the present Treaty should prejudice … the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union.

More widely, several of the measures in Sandhurst depend on UK participation in the Common European Asylum System. Specifically, EU Regulation 604/2013, better known as “Dublin III”.

The parts of the treaty that concern Dublin III “shall only apply whilst both Parties are participants in Regulation 604/2013”.

As things stand, EU law including the Common European Asylum System and Dublin III will cease to apply to the UK on 29 March 2019.

Some parts of the Sandhurst Treaty may therefore prove to be very short lived indeed. It hardly seems worth adding this into the treaty for merely a one-year period, though, so this may indicate that the government anticipates or perhaps just hopes that Dublin III will continue to apply after Brexit.

It is primarily Article 2 of the treaty that deals with implementation of Dublin III. It includes several specific commitments:

  • Set up “joint governance structure” overseeing the operation of Dublin III between France and the UK
  • Where UK receives a “take charge request” from France about an unaccompanied minor with family members in the UK, the UK should respond within 10 working days
  • Where the UK or France accepts responsibility for processing the asylum claim of an unaccompanied child, actual transfer should take place within 15 working days
  • In other cases transfer should occur within 30 days of acceptance of responsibility

The treaty helpfully reiterates several core principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including best interests, family reunion and the views of the minor concerned.

There is a strange passage reiterating the commitment of the parties to consider “the evidentiary value of circumstantial evidence” in international protection cases. This implies that one of the parties isn’t terribly happy with the other about something, but it is hard to know what. Answers on a postcard, please.

New information sharing

Article 6 of the Sandhurst Treaty commits the UK and France to set up a new Joint Information and Coordination Centre (CCIC) for law enforcement officers. This will aim to:

  • Address threats to public order on cross border infrastructure (presumably including any new Boris Bridge)
  • Operate as a crisis management centre in the event of “acute migratory pressure”
  • Counter the operations of smuggling rings, human traffickers and criminal networks

Further details will be set out in a declaration of intent between the UK and France before the CCIC begins work.

This CCIC is a bilateral arrangement, not one involving the EU. Is this intended as a replacement for access to EU information once the UK leaves the Common European Asylum System? The UK would no doubt dearly love to have access to the new, upcoming version of the EU’s migrant fingerprint database, EURODAC, which will cover all migrants, not just refugees.

Returns and prevention

Article 7 includes several measures on “returns”, although the meaning of this word seems to have been stretched to include “sending migrants to an entirely new country.” It is proposed that the UK and France will:

  • Run joint programmes for removal of migrants to their country of origin or “country where they are legally admissible” seemingly via joint charter flights
  • Pool resources for interpreting “rare” languages including Kurdish, Tigrinya, Oromo and Amharic
  • Cooperate on contacts with consular representatives of countries of return to secure travel documents

The UK and France also say they will “jointly agree action designed to affect migratory flows at the earlier stages, in the source and transit countries”, including:

  • “Dissuasive information programmes targeted at populations likely to consider illegal movements”
  • Strengthen reintegration of removed migrants
  • Strengthen regional border management capacity in source and transit countries

We have seen proposals for publicity intended to dissuade migrants from coming to the UK before. The Australians took this approach to a new low. There is no evidence that this approach actually works but that is unlikely to dissuade politicians from trying.

Article 10 states that the treaty can be terminated at any time by either party and will cease to have effect six months after notification.

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Colin Yeo

Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.