More than 30 migrants have tragically lost their lives trying to reach safety in the UK. These were people with hopes and dreams, friends and family. They should never have been put in a position where their only option was to cross a deadly stretch of water.
The British public are in agreement that these dangerous crossings need to end – no one wants to see people dying 15 miles off our coastline. But instead of taking a compassionate and realistic approach, the government is ensuring that the Channel becomes increasingly more dangerous and deadly.
While the numbers of people seeking, and being granted, refuge in the UK, has decreased the number of Channel crossings has increased. The primary reason for this is that in order to seek asylum in the UK you must first be on British soil. Avenues for applying for asylum outside the UK have mostly been closed or minimised since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the government has not committed to reopening them. Instead, ministers have increasingly relied on trying to stop people from entering the UK in the first place.
We already know that those who are trying to reach the UK from France have a genuine reason for doing so: why would they risk their life on a dangerous crossing unless they had not reached safety yet? Safety is far more than the land that we are standing on – it is about the ability to start again, it is about community, family, work, about not being isolated. Safety is not a country; it is an innate sense of belonging and wellbeing. It makes sense that people with family and friends in the UK, who speak English, and come from countries that have historical – even colonial – ties with the UK would want to seek sanctuary here.
Instead of accepting that there is a real need to ensure that people can get to the UK, the government has taken the opposite approach. Requests for cooperation with the French authorities have been met with posturing and bravado, and the government has largely turned their noses up at international collaboration, in favour of draconian proposals like illegal pushbacks at sea and even higher fences.
As border spending has rocketed, so has the price smugglers charge for crossings. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee itself concluded two years ago, when the current home secretary, Priti Patel, was a member, that “policies which focus exclusively on closing borders drive migrants to take more dangerous routes, and push them into the hands of criminal groups”.
Recent proposals from the Home Office are farcical and elaborate – including using wave machines and jet skis to stop boats from reaching British shores. Not only are these proposals unworkable, they are designed to use asylum seekers as political football, with the intention of chasing headlines rather than getting to the root of the problem.
We have to ask ourselves a real question here – are the British government trying to stop people smugglers and dangerous journeys, or are they trying to stop refugees from coming to this country at all?
If the approach was to ensure that the UK is upholding its commitment to international refugee protection, then the government would ensure that it is working with the French authorities to provide people with a safe way to travel. The only way to break the “business model” of people smuggling and trafficking is to ensure that desperate people are provided with new ways to seek safety, and aren’t reliant on methods presented to them by those willing to exploit them.
The government must begin to accept that the current approach will lead to more deaths at our borders, and that a rational and logical approach could end this situation once and for all.
Minnie Rahman is the interim chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants