There are moments when the heartbreaking tragedy of those much less fortunate than us should act as a wake-up call to make the world a better place. Yesterday afternoon was one of those.
At least 27 men, women and children who, through no fault of their own, were seeking safety in the UK, perished in the cold, unforgiving seas of the Channel – the busiest shipping lane in the world. They had packed themselves into a flimsy unseaworthy dinghy on the French cost on the final leg of what they hoped would be a journey to a new life where they could do what we all take for granted – work, make friends, have fun and be safe from any harm.
We don’t yet know their names, their ages, what relation they were to one another or where they were from. But we do know they will have paid vast sums of money to people traffickers who cruelly control a trade in human cargo that exploits the suffering of those who have fled persecution, oppression and terror in other parts of the globe.
It is difficult for any of us to imagine what the people arriving across the Channel have been through. I recently met two teenage brothers who had made their way overland from Afghanistan fleeing the Taliban, who at the time were advancing across the country. They too had arrived in a small boat on the beach in Dover.
As I sat with them at the Kent Intake Unit, where Refugee Council staff look after them before they are taken into the care of local authorities, they looked vacant, totally disoriented and fearful of what would happen to them next. In broken English, they told me they wanted England to be their new home. Clearly very traumatised, they said they were terrified they could be sent back to Afghanistan.
Rather than showing compassion, humanity and understanding to people like the two teenage Afghans, the government has chosen to talk and act tough, adopting an uncompromising stance. Expensive kit has been bought to try to block the boats. Millions have been spent on increasing border controls – much of it handed to the French to deliver.
The government says those arriving in small boats are nearly all economic migrants – a claim repeated on Tuesday in the Commons by the home secretary. The reality is different. An analysis by the Refugee Council published last week shows that almost all arrivals in the 18 months to June this year were from 10 countries, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea and Afghanistan, where persecution is not uncommon. More than six out of 10 people from these countries seeking asylum in the UK are granted refugee status or protection. For the top five countries it is higher, at seven out of 10.
Anybody who comes here overland has been immediately labelled an “illegal immigrant”. The new nationality and borders bill is designed to create an even more hostile environment, including provisions to offshore people while their asylum claims are processed, and a new status of temporary refugee protection. The plan is also to return people to another country if there is evidence they have passed through a so-called “safe country”.
The rationale is that the more hostile and the tougher the policy, the less likely men, women and children are to risk their lives at the hands of people traffickers. It’s a far too simplistic assumption that relies primarily on deterrence, control and enforcement. It will fail because the problem is complex and nuanced. A more sophisticated, intelligent and humane response is required.
The government needs to accept that if there were more safe and regular routes in place for people – such as a wide-ranging resettlement programme, humanitarian visas and reformed family reunion rules – fewer people would feel the need to make such dangerous journeys in the first place. Both Labour and Conservative governments have curtailed safe routes in recent decades through more draconian asylum and immigration laws, forcing people to take dangerous journeys instead. An ambitious expansion of safe routes is urgently needed.
Many people seeking asylum will have no option other than making a journey by land. In the seven decades since the UK helped establish the UN convention on refugees in 1951, many thousands have fled their home countries – including those escaping ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, torture in Zimbabwe and war in Syria – taking dangerous routes to reach our country. They have been granted a fair hearing on UK soil when they arrive. This principle, upheld by prime ministers since Winston Churchill, should continue today. And to avoid the risky journeys people could be allowed to apply for a humanitarian visa to enable them to travel safely to our shores to claim asylum.
People seeking asylum have the right to choose to come to Britain, often because they have family or community connections or speak some English. Far more – three times more in the case of Germany and twice as many in the case of France – seek asylum elsewhere in Europe. As a signatory to the convention, the UK should allow those who choose to make an asylum application here to do so.
The movement of people in search of safety is not just a policy challenge for our government but one that Europe and other western nations are facing. Like the climate crisis, it requires a multilateral response – working collaboratively with other countries. This includes working together to address the factors that force people to seek safety. Mechanisms that will stabilise and enrich those parts of the world that people are fleeing are critical. “Global Britain” could seek to play a leading role in addressing this global challenge.
The horrific deaths in the Channel require the government to stop and think again. Less empty rhetoric, more intelligent realism, less nationalist posturing, more global leadership – and most importantly, less punitive control. At the end of the day, more compassion is what we really need.