Voices: We are seeing the tragic cost of political posturing over the Channel

·3-min read
Migrants are helped by RNLI off the south-east coast of England on 24 November (AFP via Getty Images)
Migrants are helped by RNLI off the south-east coast of England on 24 November (AFP via Getty Images)

How desperate do you have to be to entrust the safety of yourself – your children – to the hands of a people smuggler? How desperate do you have to be to take an inflatable dinghy across the busiest shipping lane in the world, in November, in the cold and the dark?

Imagine where that desperation started. Imagine where that desperation ends.

For at least some on this harsh, wintry night, it has ended with their lives. A boat filled with human beings capsized in the English Channel while attempting to cross to our shores. As I write, reports suggest that at least 30 people have drowned. We may never know the true figure; people smugglers are not known for their care or their record-keeping.

Tonight we are seeing the real, human cost of government policies on our borders that are more about political posturing than finding solutions. It is past time that we lived up to our responsibilities as a modern liberal democracy, and provided safe and legal routes for refugees.

Tonight the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has chaired an emergency Cobra meeting to respond to the terrible news. It is the least that we should expect but it seems that the outcome is little more than we are used to from this Conservative government – warm words, paired with a refusal to take meaningful positive action.

This is, after all, a government that refuses to provide any safe and legal routes for refugees to come to our country. They scrapped the Dubs scheme for child refugees, and wound down commitments to support others fleeing from conflict and abuse. At the same time they are driving through the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would deny any right to asylum for those who do not come here legally, in breach of our international obligations. The UK is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which protects the rights of refugees against government abuse. By its current text, the Nationality and Borders Bill would shatter our adherence to that treaty.

In recent weeks we have seen attempts to blame other countries, suggestions that we can offshore refugees to distant lands and, most troublingly, a resurfacing of the proposed “pushback” tactics which would endanger lives still further.

No legal routes to asylum and punishment for those who come illegally – it is a legal and moral void in which our government cloaks itself. Little wonder, then, that we are facing a growing humanitarian crisis on our borders.

Stopping these deadly Channel crossings starts by committing properly to safe and legal routes. There are practical alternatives to the government’s approach staring us in the face: resettlement programmes, family reunion routes and a new idea whose time has surely come: humanitarian visas that people can apply for abroad, before coming to the UK safely to apply for refugee status. By codifying these legal routes to asylum we could reduce the incentives for people to take desperate action to reach our shores.

If the government’s policy is that no one outside our borders can claim help or asylum, however, then we cannot be surprised if we see more of the same tragic events we have witnessed this evening. The only ones who stand to benefit are the people smugglers whose pockets are filled by this government’s policies.

The United Kingdom has a long and proud history of helping people fleeing for their lives. We are unfortunate in this time to be governed by those who have turned their back on that legacy.

Priti Patel and Johnson seem to view the sea as a moat, to be fortified against the world – but they are wrong. The sea is what connects us. It is what links us to every corner of the globe and to our shared humanity.

We cannot simply cut ourselves off and deny our obligations, whether to the Refugee Convention, the principles of international law or to basic human decency. We have known for too long where such a route could take. Tonight the human consequences of our government’s policies are staring us in the face.

Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on home affairs — and the party’s MP for Orkney and Shetland

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