Drowning in the Channel Courtesy of the Tories

Photograph Source: Jon Evans – CC BY 2.0

Twenty-seven people died while attempting to cross the English Channel from France to the UK on 27 November. This was the single worst loss of life this crossing has seen since records on such cross-Channel gambles (which is what they are) started to be kept in 2014.

Since the start of 2020, more than 30,000 people have risked their lives making the 21mile/34km crossing on inflatable dinghies, a miscellany of small boats, and even kayaks.

On a personal note, while an undergraduate in the 60s at my English university I’d make this crossing in a small but seaworthy sailboat owned by a fellow student who was a very experienced sailor. The Channel was a chock-a-block sea route even then, and keeping an eye on large ships required constant vigilance. An ocean-going ship could never manoeuvre in time to avoid a small boat, so the onus was entirely on the small vessel to take evasive action.

Wanting to make this perilous journey today in barely seaworthy and over-crowded boats is almost beyond belief, and more lives are bound be lost. Governments on both sides of the Channel have gushed with regret and made repeated promises of action, but this alas is a mere exercise in smoke and mirrors.

The Tory government has made it virtually impossible for genuine refugees with convincing claims for asylum to reach the UK except by the most hazardous means.

The Tory strategy, executed to a T by its enablers in the rightwing tabloids, is to frame the plight of the asylum seekers in terms of the culture wars, where a blatantly racialized politics can be mobilized for electoral advantage.

Blame is placed on the refugees themselves for their plight, as they are told that it is their fault for taking such risks in coming to a place that does not want them.

Last month the home secretary/interior minister, Priti Patel (herself the child of refugees who fled Idi Amin’s Uganda), misinformed parliament’s Justice and Home Affairs Committee that a majority of those making the Channel crossing weren’t refugees. Patel told the committee:

“Seventy per cent of those individuals who have come to our country illegally in small boats are single young men who are effectively economic migrants … These are the ones that are elbowing [aside] the women and children who are at risk and fleeing persecution”.

Patel’s claim is contradicted by statistics from her own department. These reveal that of the top 10 nationalities arriving in small boats seeking asylum, 61% receive asylum “at the initial stage” and 59% receive it on appeal– a clear indication that over 70% of asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats are bona fide asylum seekers and not “economic migrants”.

Patel is pushing a two-tier asylum system in a plan which will divide individuals into legal and illegal asylum seekers. Announcing the plan on 24 March, calling its proposals a “firm but fair system”, Patel said it has 3 objectives:

+ to increase the fairness and efficacy of our system so that we can better protect and support those in need of genuine asylum

+ to deter illegal entry into the UK, thereby breaking the business model of criminal trafficking networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger

+ to remove more easily from the UK those with no right to be here

Patel’s plan is reflected in the Nationality and Borders Bill, which will be reaching its third parliamentary reading soon. The explicit aim of the Bill is to make conditions even more unwelcoming and hostile for asylum seekers.

The Bill’s provisions include detaining refugees offshore (Ascension Island, about 1,000 miles from the coast of Africa and 1,400 miles from the coast of Brazil, has been mooted, following the Australian example of Nauru in the central Pacific); casting refugees as criminals if they arrive in a manner the government disapproves of; and making legal the pushing back of refugee boats across the English Channel. The UK’s Border Force has already conducted training exercises for these “push backs”.

The government’s Bill is a flagrant breach of the principles regarding refugees enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Convention.

The Tory government is exaggerating the scale of the refugee situation to curry favour with its xenophobic and racist base.

This base has been active in the current Channel crisis. On 20 November, a Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) volunteer crew was “blocked” from launching out to sea on an emergency call-out by a small crowd which accused the crew of going to the rescue of “illegal” asylum seekers.

Bigots of this kind are being egged-on by far-right politicians—Nigel Farage described the RNLI as “a taxi service for illegal immigration”, while the extremist rightwing party Britain First started an email campaign on 3 December, asking its supporters to bombard the RNLI with messages condemning it for supporting “illegal immigration” and “people trafficking”.

Britain received 32,411 applications for asylum in the year to March. That is a third of the crest in the early 2000s and small by today’s global standards.

Britain ranked fifth among European countries for asylum claims in 2020, and 17th adjusting for population.

It isn’t even the preferred destination in Europe—according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) France received 87,659 asylum applications from refugees in 2020, while Germany tallied 102,565 asylum applications that year.

Many poorer countries receive far more refugees– 86% of refugees are in developing countries. Nearly 75% are in countries next to the ones they fled from, almost certainly indicative of a desire on their part to return to their country of origin when this becomes feasible.

The number of small craft crossing the Channel has increased, primarily as a result of enhanced security measures along non-sea routes: electric fences, drone patrols, and heat sensors surround train tracks and marshalling yards, prompting refugees to attempt the more perilous sea journey.

The UK continues to shut down safe and legal routes. While there are official refugee resettlement schemes, such as those for Syrian and Afghan refugees, these are hardly a success.

The Afghan scheme is still in its design phase after 3 months, and the Syrian scheme, upon inspection in 2018, was found to keep refugees who had been accepted onto it waiting for an average of 35 weeks before being resettled. Faced with a wait of 35 weeks in a war-torn and destitute country, many refugees take matters into their own hands and set-off on unofficial routes.

The top 4 countries the refugees come from are Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. in terms of nationality, the largest group crossing the Channel in the past 18 months have been Iranians, with 3,187 citizens making the journey. Only 1 Iranian has arrived in the UK by the official route, and where Yemen is concerned, in these 18 months not a single Yemeni has arrived in the UK by the official path.

The Tory Government also voted against the so-called Dubs Amendment to the Brexit Bill that would have ensured the UK continues to allow unaccompanied child refugees in Europe to reunite with family members in the UK after Brexit was completed. The Amendment, named after former child refugee and campaigner Lord Alf Dubs, was scrapped after the 2019 general election, despite the government’s prior agreement to include the amendment in its Brexit Bill.

Brexit has had another consequence. While the UK was in the EU, the Dublin III Regulation provided criteria and procedures for determining which member state has responsibility for examining an asylum claim made in the EU. It allows EU members to send requests to other member states to “take charge of” or “take back” asylum applications (within time limits). Dublin III would have allowed the UK government to return Channel-crossers to France in an entirely legal manner, with the onus now being placed on the French to examine the asylum claims in question. This option has been foreclosed post-Brexit.

Priti Patel, and her boss BoJo Johnson, accusing France of wanting to punish the UK for Brexit, say it is up to France to stop refugees crossing the Channel. They even want to station British troops in France to deter asylum seekers from making the sea journey.

The French position is straightforward and appropriate, that is, its decision to leave the EU has made the UK into what EU treaties define as a “third country”. Such countries can have very close ties to the EU, as is the case with Norway and Switzerland. At the same time, while a third country might have influence in Brussels, it has no power within Brussels— that power is the exclusive prerogative of member states. BoJo, however, struts around as if the UK is entitled to that power, or some vestige of it.

The French government and public opinion alike have a poor view of BoJo’s antics.

At the end of November, BoJo wrote a letter to the French President Emmanuel Macron (which BoJo promptly released on Twitter), setting out 5 steps to move “further and faster” to avoid repeating the tragic drownings in the Channel.

These measures included the implementation of joint patrols on French soil, better use of technology such as sensors and radar (already being done), navy patrols in each other’s waters, and stronger cooperation by intelligence services (already being done).

Macron, clearly exasperated with BoJo’s grandstanding on social media (all done for the benefit of domestic public opinion), responded angrily to BoJo by accusing him of not being serious.

French sovereignty would be breached by the presence of British army units on French soil and by the Royal Navy patrolling French waters, while BoJo’s mention of measures that were already in place just seemed like gratuitous playing to the UK’s anti-French gallery. Macron said:

“We do not communicate from one leader to another on these issues by tweets and letters that we make public. We are not whistle-blowers”.

According to the magazine Le Canard Enchaîné, Macron described BoJo’s administration to his advisers as a “circus”, and BoJo himself as “un clown”.

While the clown remains in office, rank political prejudice and buck-passing will drive the UK’s response to the refugee crisis, and luckless individuals in leaky boats will continue to be regarded as just so much human detritus.

There will be no informed and measured public discussions of the crisis, involving such questions as what a fair and humane immigration system must look like, the possibility of having a system that allows separated families to be reunited across borders, and which is buttressed by economic and social measures designed to reduce or eliminate the human costs of an avoidable tragedy.

It cannot after all be forgotten that the key protagonists in this absolutely dismal state of affairs are some of the richest countries in the world.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.