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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Enver Solomon

We know people seeking asylum die in the Channel, but callous hardline policy kills them too

People rescued while attempting to cross the Channel are brought to Dover, 12 August 2023
People rescued while attempting to cross the Channel are brought to Dover, 12 August 2023. Photograph: Stuart Brock/AFP/Getty Images

After days of headline-grabbing announcements as part of the government’s stop the boats week, the stark human reality of what it means to take the dangerous journey across the world’s busiest shipping lane was brought home to us all with the news that at least six people died that way in the early hours of Saturday morning.

The flimsy vessel was overloaded with about 60 people, including children, desperate to get to the UK to be safe. All those who lost their lives and most of those rescued were from Afghanistan. This sharply brings into focus the failure to provide sufficient safe routes for Afghans fleeing the clutches of the Taliban and seeking sanctuary in our country.

As our recent Refugee Council report shows, 54 Afghans have been newly resettled under the government’s Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, not the promised 5,000. This is compared with more than 8,000 Afghans who arrived here in the past year, who crossed the Channel in small boats out of desperation. For every Afghan who managed to arrive through a resettlement scheme, almost 90 resorted to risking their lives at sea.

Inside government the determination to talk tough about stopping the boats remains resolute. Ministers apparently want to introduce more barges, despite legionella being found in the water on the Bibby Stockholm, which has halted plans to move 500 people seeking asylum on to it.

But what is driving the government’s agenda? Ministers talk a lot about deterrence. They have even suggested privately that processing the backlog of more than 150,000 people awaiting an asylum decision could act as a pull factor, increasing the number of people wanting to seek asylum.

There is an obsession with the notion that the more hostile the asylum system is, the more it will deter people. Hostility is actually designed in to the system. Justice secretary Alex Chalk described the accommodation offered on the Bibby Stockholm as “sparse” and “a bit austere”, adding: “Frankly, that is not unreasonable.” However, increasing levels of hostility only result in making the system even more dysfunctional, inhumane and potentially dangerous.

The Rwanda scheme is seen by all those in government as the ultimate deterrent. A senior backbench Conservative MP tells me that after meeting with the authorities in northern France, where people wait to get across the Channel, he is very confident that as soon as flights get off the ground it will stop the boats coming. But knowledgable Home Office officials quietly point out that the number of people who can be sent to Rwanda is in reality limited and just a fraction of those who will be banned from applying for asylum under the new Illegal Migration Act.

The draconican law applies to all those who arrive through any irregular means – not just in small boats but hidden in lorries, cars or ferries. Last year 70,000 people applied for asylum having arrived through all these clandestine routes. Even if Rwanda could take 10,000 people a year, our analysis shows that three years after the legislation coming into effect, nearly 200,000 people will have had their asylum claims deemed inadmissible but will not have been removed.

Dig a little deeper into the government’s thinking and it quickly becomes clear that it’s not really about deterrence. A former immigration minister I spoke to informally a few months ago was very open about this. They are simply fit men who are “jumping the asylum queue”, the ex-minister said.

When I pointed out that three-quarters of asylum cases that are adjudicated at initial decision result in the applicant being allowed to stay in the UK, I was told that if they are “genuine refugees” they shouldn’t be paying people smugglers to take dangerous journeys but should find their way to refugee camps to be helped by the UN on to a resettlement programme to the UK or another country.

It revealed the deep-seated belief that people coming across the Channel are simply not deserving of being given a fair hearing in the UK or being treated with decency and humanity, because they are considered to all be “illegals” playing the system.

It goes to the heart of the politics of the stop the boats crusade. It is a purposeful move away from the commitment to a shared humanity and multilateralism forged by the international community in the wake of the horrors of the second world war to an insular, unilateralist, more nationalist agenda akin to that championed by the Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni or Marine Le Pen in France.

So we must look behind the government soundbites about Channel crossings and ask ourselves: what sort of country do we want to be? There are basic choices to be made and we must make them – between liberalism and nationalist populism, between humanity and inhumanity, between compassion and cruelty.

Standing up for treating men, women and children seeking asylum with decency, care and understanding, respecting their rights and giving them a fair hearing. That would be a mark of the nation we want to be and the values we want to hold on to.

  • Enver Solomon is chief executive of the Refugee Council

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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