It comes as a nasty shock but no surprise to humanitarian groups that at least four people have lost their lives in the English Channel just over a year since more than 27 asylum seekers died in the same frozen waters after their flimsy dinghy capsized.
That another 43 were rescued after their boat sank in the early hours of Wednesday shows at least that there was no repeat of the disastrous arguments and failures to act that condemned so many to death on the night of November 24 last year — one lesson learned, at least, for the rescue teams.
But that yet more people were spilled out into waters as cold as minus 4C off the Kent coast in another tragic attempt to cross the Channel proves once again that, for all their bluster and rhetoric about the dangerous crossings, the government has made no headway whatsoever in trying to end them.
“There are no words to express our horror and grief at today’s tragedy,” Clare Moseley, who founded the refugee charity Care4Calais, said following news of the drownings. “Our government has…failed both the refugees who need our help and our country.”
Home secretary Suella Braverman said that her “heartfelt thoughts” were with the families of the victims, but clearly her thoughts haven’t otherwise been engaged in trying to prevent further such deaths or we would not be here today.
Soon, government ministers were back doing what they have done numerous times before, asking all the wrong questions and finding all the wrong answers — unless, that is, their aim was to continue demonising foreigners seeking help, amplify their dog-whistle messaging and allow the crossings to continue.
Braverman, who has been guilty of some of the harshest, most inflammatory language even compared to the recent string of hardline home secretaries, told parliament of her “profound sadness” over the deaths, but then launched into her usual B-movie thriller-style rhetoric, her sentences peppered with words like “evil”, “criminals” and “destroy.”
For although they are criminal, unsavoury and prepared to let people drown for profit, the people smugglers she obsesses about are not the cause of the problem, they are the result of an asylum system that feeds their profits.
Were the government to solve the actual problem — by providing safe and legal routes for asylum seekers and dealing with their cases swiftly and fairly — the numbers would diminish quite quickly and many smugglers would be out of a job. And the public the governments is supposedly trying to pacify with its hardline pronouncements would not be up in arms if only politicians would stop demonising what is — relative to other countries such as Germany — a small number of foreign nationals, many of whose lives are awful enough that they’re prepared to risk them by stepping on a wobbly inflatable weighed down by too many people in the middle of the night.
“Let’s just first of all pause and remember who these people are. They’re men, women and children like you and me, but unlike you and me, they don’t have a safe place to live,” Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, told Sky News. “The majority of people coming across the Channel are people who are fleeing war and violence and bloodshed.”
Had the cabinet heeded this call — made over and over again by people who actually work with refugees — then Rishi Sunak, would have made a completely different statement earlier this week about the subject.
But instead, pledging to clear the backlog of nearly 150,000 asylum claims by the end of next year through increased staff and a sped-up process, the prime minister announced a plan to address the Channel crossings that was all about performative toughness at a time when widespread strikes and general indecision are making him look weak.
This includes swiftly returning home Albanians who have been coming to the UK in increasing numbers — even though more than half tend to have their claims accepted — a return to the controversial and ineffective “hostile environment” strategy that caused the Windrush scandal, a reduction in the protections in the modern slavery act so it could not be “abused” and an annual cap on the number of asylum seekers allowed into the country,
Other proposals include a new “operational command centre” for tackling small boat crossings, as well as end to housing asylum seekers in hotels — where they had been because of a lack of forward planning — in favour of large-scale centres, such as military buildings or empty holiday parks, more akin to the discredited, overcrowded barracks where disease had become rife.
Then there was the plan for legislation setting out that those who “arrive illegally” will have no right to remain, instead being detained and returned either to their home country or sent to Rwanda to apply for asylum there.
None of these ideas are particularly new, few have been implemented and nothing that has been tried has had any deterrence value. And many of Sunak’s proposals don’t even have a passing acquaintance with the UK’s obligations under international law, including the 1954 Geneva convention on refugees.
The lawyers in government will know, as will many others, that these people are not “illegals” and it is not illegal for asylum seekers to reach their desired destination to ask for asylum in whichever way they can. Once their claim has been fairly assessed, they may not qualify and be deported, but an overwhelming majority of those who arrive in the UK by boat have their claims accepted — more than three quarters the first time round, and many more following appeal. But talk of an “invasion” of illegals seems to suit them better.
“See that for what it is: an inhumane response that would effectively rip up our commitment to the UN refugee convention, of which the UK was a founding signatory,” Solomon said in a column in the Guardian, in reply to Sunak. “And see what it would mean. For this is a convention that was founded on the basic principles of international solidarity and responsibility-sharing. To withdraw from air in all but name would be a shift towards aggressive unilateralism.”
No wonder some ministers, especially but not exclusively Braverman, have been agitating to leave the refugee convention as well as the European convention on human rights.
There is one sentiment in Sunak’s unedifying proposals that might be construed as a lesson learned, the need for asylum applications to be dealt with more speedily after a period in which whistleblowers have claimed they were deliberately slowed down. This is counterproductive, since until they get refugee status, these claimants cannot work and must delay starting their new lives, becoming taxpayers and contributing to their new country. In an analysis in The Times it was suggested that part of Sunak’s strategy may have been to “largely accept many of those waiting for their asylum claims to be processed”.
Maybe. But the idea of speeding up the process also flags up problems. Attempts to fast-track the process before have led to insufficient research, shoddy decisions and lengthy appeals. What reason is there to hope that this newly sketched-out plan will be much better?
The move to streamline the modern slavery act is also worrying — even May, who created the hostile environmental policy but championed the modern slavery act, has warned Sunak against it.
What is striking — but completely unsurprising —in what Sunak and Braverman has said is the lack of understanding regarding the most important policy to reduce the boat crossings — providing alternative safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to try instead. Many people live horrific lives across the world, many entangled in conflicts or failed states, climate-induced famine and dangerous poverty and want, and will seek asylum, however dangerous the journeys. Many of those trying to reach the UK have links to people living here. Doubling down on deterrence only causes more anguish.
As Natalie Roberts, executive director at Medicine Sans Frontieres UK, said: “A cruel and punitive approach, such as that outlined by the prime minister yesterday, will not stop Channel crossings and will simply cause more suffering. As the Home Office’s own research shows, an approach built on deterrence only pushes desperate people into yet more dangerous routes. Men, women and children seeking safety will be forced into make even riskier journeys to get here, causing harm to their health and well-being, and inevitably resulting in more deaths.”
Even so, government ministers continue to cite discredited examples such as Australia’s policy of exporting asylum seekers to Pacific islands — seen as a template for the Rwanda policy. Yet Australia abandoned this after just two years because it did not deter asylum seekers, instead creating dystopian detention centres where doctors found children more traumatised than those that have faced torture and inmates made multiple suicide attempts including some primary age children. Years later, Australia is still paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year after nearly a decade to house those initial detainees.
Unless he didn’t read his briefing papers or ignored Braverman’s recent humiliation in a parliamentary select committee — where she could not cite a single “safe and legal” route that a 16-year-old African boy feeling danger could take to the UK — Sunak will also know that there are no such routes to the UK for most asylum seekers, even though he announced that there were.
Normal visas are rarely granted to the cohort trying to reach the UK by boat, mostly due to nationality rather than individual claim — just ask the fiance of Maryam Nuri Muhammed Amin, who drowned in the Channel last year. Her fiance had the legal right to remain in the UK and she was in possession of a Schengen visa, but wasn’t able to secure a British visa to visit him. Refugees can’t individually apply for asylum from abroad — they need to be in the UK to do that yet their route here is barred.
Family reunion visas have been sharply restricted, so that is rarely an option even though many have family in the UK. A safer way to arrive — hiding in trucks or trains — has been zealously policed, driving those who want to come away from a method which they could try on their own into the arms of the expensive and dangerous smugglers.
Therefore, the only safe and legal routes Sunak can be referring to is the UN resettlement programme, in which a strictly limited number of vulnerable people from designated countries can come from refugee camps or community accommodation near warzones, following a lengthy process of vetting and selection that can last years.
I have experience with the Syrian scheme as part of a community resettlement group. It took an enormous amount of time and effort on all sides to get one single family to a UK town. At one point their journey to the UK was cancelled with two days’ notice during Covid, and it was only after months of lobbying and media appearances that this scheme was briefly reopened, even though other flights had resumed.
Then came the Afghan scheme that followed the chaos of evacuation of British and American troops and some of their supporters from Kabul. A recent report by the European investigations newsroom Lighthouse Reports and the Observer has shown that not one person had been accepted and evacuated under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme (ACRS) since it launched in January — vindicating the decision of those Afghans who decided to try their luck by walking across Europe and getting on a shaky dinghy instead.
“How come Sunak can find 400 new processing staff for a scheme to vilify Albanians, but only 8 people to process 11,000 Afghanistan asylum applications – meaning literally zero Afghans have been resettled from Afghanistan under ACRS Pathway 3?” Green Party MP Caroline Lucas asked after Sunak’s asylum announcement. The prime minister was putting politics over people’s lives, she said.
Ukrainians have seemingly had an easier ride amid the immediate wartime sympathy, but now there are reports of homelessness and destitution of some Ukrainian refugees following the end of the six-month period in which their hosts were paid to house them.
Nothing short of a wholesale reform in asylum procedures and a complete change in the way in which asylum seekers are discussed will end the horrors of recent times and deter others from following the more than 40,000 people who have crossed the Channel so far by boat. This seems unlikely. Those currently in charge, who seem more intent on finding ways to get the navy to help push back desperate people in leaky boats.
Maybe they all need to read this scene from the opening of George Orwell’s 1984, where Winston Smith is writing about a film he has seen, and clarify once and for all if this is the kind of country they wanted to create:
“One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean”, Smith wrote. “Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water.”