Britain has accused France of "ceding sovereign territory to criminal people smugglers" by allowing 1,000 Channel migrants to reach the UK in a day for the first time.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, is understood to be furious at an apparent "go slow" by France on intercepting migrant boats. It comes amid growing tensions between France and the UK over fishing rights and the Northern Ireland protocol.
France was said to have stopped just "a couple of boats" on Thursday. It means more than 3,000 migrants have crossed the Channel in the first 11 days of the month, with the French intercepting fewer than 30 per cent despite Gerald Darmanin, the interior minister, pledging a 100 per cent rate in return for the UK’s £54 million to fund counter-measures.
A Whitehall source said: "Today, the French government failed in their duty to protect life and to uphold the joint agreement to stop small boats leaving France. They let hundreds of people potentially set sail to their death whilst only stopping a couple of boats.
"They appear to have ceded sovereign territory to criminal people smugglers. This abject failure will be raised in the strongest possible terms with Gerald Darmanin and the French government."
A government source said efforts by France to stop the boats seemed "to be going backwards. We are tied up in much bigger diplomacy. That’s one of the problems. There’s all the stuff with fishing and the Northern Ireland protocol and general UK-French relations." Asked whether France was "going slow" as a result, the source said: "I can imagine that."
One Border Force source compared the migrants crossing on Thursday to an "armada", adding: "It’s bedlam out there today."
The numbers crossing have increased each day this week from 50 on Monday, to 504 on Tuesday, 703 on Wednesday and more than 1,000 on Thursday. As of Wednesday, France had intercepted 568 attempted crossings – less than three in 10. The total of 24,000 this year is nearly treble 2020’s figure.
Monthly illegal channel crossings (2021 v 2020)
The RNLI was heavily involved on Thursday, dispatching lifeboats from Ramsgate, Dover, Dungeness and Hastings and rescuing the majority of the migrants.
One volunteer told The Telegraph that they were at "breaking point" after being called out repeatedly, adding: "Our employers are starting to ask why we are never at work.
"This should really be a job for the Government, not the RNLI. What happens when there’s an emergency somewhere else and we are all out at sea rescuing migrants? It’s a very difficult situation. To be honest, we are all completely knackered."
Tony Smith, a former head of Border Force, accused France of "turning a blind eye" to deaths and criminal money-making from the surge in Channel migrant smuggling. He told The Telegraph it was "shameful" that France was refusing to agree to joint patrols with Britain to return migrants to France which could solve the growing crisis.
Mr Smith also accused the French of Brexit "spite" for resisting a new agreement to take back migrants who should have claimed asylum in a "safe" European country before they arrived in the UK.
He claimed the crisis could be resolved if Mr Darmanin and Ms Patel negotiated an agreement to take back migrants who had illegally reached the UK from France.
"This particular French government are not interested in sitting down with Priti Patel about this because they don’t want the migrants back," he said. "The French government seems to feel that, because we left the EU, we chose to drop out of the Dublin convention [under which a country takes back migrants who previously passed through it], it’s your problem now."
The criticism provoked a backlash from Gen Frantz Tavart, who oversees the 130 gendarmes policing a 45-mile stretch of coastline covering the Pas-de-Calais region.
Speaking to The Telegraph, he said: "I can tell you categorically that the orders coming from French authorities are to be as effective as possible to try and intercept a maximum number of migrants.
"It would be as stupid to suggest we would open the migratory floodgates due to a fishing dispute as it would to suggest we shouldn’t turn out to commemorate the British soldiers who died on French soil on Armistice Day, which I did today in Arras."
The UK and France remain locked in a dispute over whether British authorities are refusing to grant legitimate applications for fishing permits. The increasingly bitter row prompted a series of technical negotiations between UK and EU officials over whether the vessels should be allowed to fish in Britain’s coastal waters.
The Telegraph understands "some limited progress" has been made in recent days and an announcement of up to four new permits could come imminently. Licences will be issued for boats to fish in both Britain and Jersey’s six to 12-mile coastal zones, an EU insider said.
France has threatened to hit the UK with punitive sanctions, including banning British boats from its ports and extra customs controls on British lorries, but has since rowed back to create room for negotiations.