Following the the deaths of 27 people in the English channel this week, the Conservative government have demonstrated nothing but a callous and dangerous attitude towards the plight of refugees.
On Wednesday, a dingy carrying 29 people capsized while attempting the crossing from France to England. As reports of the deaths came through, the UK and French governments moved quickly to give their condolences, and to condemn the people smugglers who they blame for these events. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “[This disaster] shows how vital it is that we now step up our efforts to break the business model of the gangsters who are sending people to sea in this way, and that’s why it’s so important that we accelerate if we possibly can all the measures contained in our borders … so that we distinguish between people who come here legally, and people who come here illegally.”
French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, echoed such accusations: “Those primarily responsible for this despicable situation are the smugglers, that is to say criminals who, for a few thousand euros, organise human trafficking from Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, Asia and who then use these people to bring them to Belgium, the Netherlands, France, especially to cross the Channel and to go to Great Britain.”
However, politicians on both sides of the channel are mistaken to primarily blame the people smugglers, as despicable as their exploitation of vulnerable people is. It is the policy of these very politicians that is most at blame. Boris Johnson argues this tragedy proves the need to accelerate measures for containing Britain’s borders. Such an approach will, in fact, see more deaths like these, not less.
If the government makes it harder for refugees to cross the channel, this will not stop them from trying, it will simply push them towards more lucrative and dangerous routes. If the Conservatives truly cared for the lives of refugees, they wouldn’t be taking every measure possible to increase the already great risk in crossing the channel. Instead, they would be providing support to asylum seekers and allow them to cross by conventional means. Yet currently, migrants can only claim asylum when they are physically in Britain, meaning they have no choice but to turn to illegal means. According to the Refugee Council, 98% of those who cross the channel claim asylum.
Enver Solomon, chair of the Refugee Council, said: “How many tragedies like this must we see before the government fundamentally changes its approach by committing to an ambitious expansion of safe routes for those men, women and children in desperate need of protection? Every day, people are forced to flee their homes through no fault of their own. Now is the time to end the cruel and ineffective tactic of seeking to punish or push away those who try and find safety in our country.”
It is important to remember these politicians, who so often villify refugees as illegal, and who are so quick to blame the people smugglers, are in fact the true cause of the migrant crisis. These refugees simply would not exist were it not for the destabilisation of their countries by western imperialist powers.
One of the most problematic aspects of Britain’s existing channel crossing policy is the “turn back” approach. This sees authorities attempting to force refugees back, as opposed to providing them assistance. Not only is such an approach, brought forward under Home Secretary Priti Patel, incredibly cruel, it is also quite possibly illegal.
Three legal challenges have been brought against the Home Office for this policy. Firstly, Channel Rescue has highlighted how “turn back” breaks both British and international maritime law, which requires one to provide assistance to those distressed at sea. Then there is the challenge by Freedom from Tortrure, which argues the policy holds no legal basis and is in breach of the Refugee Convention. Finally, Care4Calais have brought forth a challenge on the matter of transparency, arguing that if a policy has been formulated, it must be published for public scrutiny.
The government may claim to care for refugees after such tragedies as last Wednesday, but their actions prove they are unwilling to do anything that could safeguard the passage of asylum seekers. They can present themselves compassionate, but the Tories’ policies here are driven by a xenophobia and nationalism that cares not for the victims of their war-making.
Philip English, is a member of the YCL’s Birmingham branch