By Tim Farron
The news of the six and nine year old children, with their parents who lost their lives in the Channel this week is utterly heartbreaking. It is an unspeakable tragedy. But in the midst of the sadness I also find myself absolutely furious.
This didn't have to happen. This wasn't just a horrible accident that nothing could have prevented. Desperate people who see no alternative will do desperate things. Imagine how much at your wits end you must be to put your young children in a small boat to cross the busiest shipping lane in the world.
What is it going to take? How many lives is it going to take before the government finds its compassion and stops turning a blind eye to the plight of desperate people? This isn't a rhetorical question. How many lives is it going to take?
No.10 and the Home Office are very happy to place blame on the criminal gangs facilitating these journey. And it's true, for what it's worth, that we must do everything we can to stop the profiteering from desperate people. But with no safe alternative, people will continue to place hope in the gangs who promise to get them to the UK. Priti Patel said on Tuesday evening that she will "do everything I can to stop callous criminals exploiting vulnerable people". Call me cynical but I will see it before I believe it. Everything she can?
Well here's one suggestion: focus on providing alternatives for refugees to come to the UK through safe and legal routes. We had an excellent scheme which successfully resettled nearly 20,000 refugees displaced from Syria since 2015. This was understandably suspended in March due to the pandemic but there's no news on when it will be reopened.
People can arrive from any country in the world via other visa routes, provided they quarantine for 14 days. So what exactly is the government's defence for the ongoing suspension? This scheme needs to be reinstated immediately with a long-term commitment for its continuation.
Second: protect the existing family reunion routes as the UK leaves the EU. The government recently voted against an amendment to the forthcoming immigration bill that would ensure family reunion routes were protected. Without these schemes in place, how can we expect people seeking asylum in the UK to get here without risking their lives under a truck, or a lorry, or an inflatable boat?
Patel in her conference speech talked about the importance of refugees using legal routes to come to the UK. I agree. So please provide some. Open these routes up for safe travel to the UK and ensure they exist after Brexit.
Patel may lump me in with the 'do-gooders' that are standing in the way of reform. But in fact we are crying out for reform. We want reform with compassion and humanity at its heart, not just a crack down on the criminals who are exploiting the desperation she had a hand in creating.
Safe and legal routes are not something the government can afford to delay until we've sorted out the pandemic and Brexit. These routes need to be open and in place so that there's an alternative to the criminal gangs.
We should not be seeing families seeking refuge dying on our borders. We need to be better than this.
Tim Farron is the former leader of the Liberal Democrat party, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on migration.
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