Migrant Channel crossing incidents

Government ‘playing politics’ with desperate refugees

It is shocking that the RNLI has had to defend its very purpose this week: to save lives at sea, regardless of who those people are. It is an emergency service; if they didn’t act, people would die. Simple.

Refugees should not be having to risk their lives on overcrowded, small boats to reach the UK in order to claim asylum. But the problem is not the RNLI, who are only doing their job, and it is not the asylum seekers themselves.

There is a bigger picture here and one which the home secretary is failing to acknowledge and respond sensibly to. We see this in her new borders bill, which she has chosen to introduce at a time when she knew the media would be fully focused on the plight of small boats in the channel.

I am angry by the way the plight of desperate refugees is being used by the government to stoke a culture war. I am angry that in the borders bill the government is seeking to answer questions that don’t exist whilst ignoring the glaringly obvious.

They are either stupid and can’t understand their own data – which I doubt – or they are really not bothered about stopping criminal gangs. They are more interested in playing politics for what they think will secure their red wall seats.

Let me be clear, the criminal gangs who profiteer from desperate people are abhorrent and we should work to stop them. But let’s take measures that will succeed and not just be good soundbites.

The home secretary announced last week that the UK will pay France a further £54m as part of a new agreement to stem the number of migrants crossing the channel. There will be more patrols and interventions to stop the small boats reaching British waters.

However, unless safe routes for asylum seekers to travel to the UK are increased in capacity and reach – to countries beyond Syria – further policing of the French beaches will not stop the smugglers. Make one route unviable and smugglers will find other, more dangerous routes; they don’t care for the safety of the desperate people they profiteer from.

The Home Office’s very own announcement of the new deal states that as French interceptions increased, criminal gangs have moved further up the French coast forcing migrants to take even longer, riskier journeys. Why they think this new plan will stop gangs, when people are still fleeing for their lives with pitifully few alternative safe routes, I have no idea.

There does seem to be a complete disengagement by government with the push factors for refugees, why people actually flee their homes in the first place. People are still fleeing for their lives, whether it be a political activist in Iran, a young person in Eritrea escaping military conscription or a family targeted by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Focusing purely on deterrents is wrong.

What we need is an ambitious plan for safe routes for refugees to come to the UK – we need a target for refugee resettlement of 10,000 people a year and for it to extend beyond the region of the Syrian conflict.

The government is rightly proud of the Syrian resettlement scheme – but we can’t live off this success – the current figures are pitiful at just 353 people in the year to March 2021. Without any ambition or target for resettlement going forward, the home secretary’s commitment to providing safe routes is just empty rhetoric.

We need a mechanism by which asylum seekers in Europe who have family in the UK can come here to have their asylum claim considered in the UK.

We need the scope of refugee family reunion policy to expand, to allow child refugees the right to bring their parents and siblings to join them in the UK, as well as allowing refugees to be joined by their dependent children over 18. These are the measures that will stem the demand for criminal gangs.

Priti Patel’s second strategy to stop people crossing the channel is to make it so awful here that asylum seekers will decide not to come. This approach has, as yet, to result in success. The hostile environment under Theresa May’s watch was meant to deter asylum seekers; instead it just made their lives more unbearable and we are here today with Patel declaring we need to be harsher still.

We are not inundated by asylum seekers, in fact 21% fewer people claimed asylum in 2020 than 2019 and, even before covid, numbers of asylum applications were nowhere near the high levels of the early 2000s. We have fewer than most other European countries; in 2020, the UK had 35,355 asylum applications, compared to Germany’s 120,320 and France’s 96,000.

Whilst safe routes are essential, they need to go alongside a fair and humane asylum system for those who make it to the UK by other routes.

The majority of those people who claim asylum are granted leave to remain in the UK, either by initial decision or following an appeal. The idea that the method of travel dictates the validity of the asylum claim is nonsense and it is deeply concerning that this is the underlying premise of the borders bill.

The UK resettlement scheme is only open to people fleeing certain conflicts – predominantly Syria. They are for those refugees who have additional vulnerabilities such as health. So, if an asylum seeker arrives in the UK via another route, it doesn’t mean they have jumped a queue; you can’t jump a queue you are not allowed to join.

It also doesn’t mean that they are not fleeing persecution – a fit healthy young man fleeing a regime because of his politics may not be classed as vulnerable, but he is still at risk as set out by the Refugee Convention, and can’t safely return home.

In any case, we have an asylum system to decide whether someone should receive refugee status – it should never be decided purely on method of travel – or whether they travelled through France or not.

Refugees who come to the UK will often say they feel they have a connection to the UK; through family and friends, through speaking English, or because they come from countries which have historical, colonial ties with the UK. The UK has a reputation for being a place where human rights are protected and freedom of speech is upheld.

Everyone wants to stop gangs, that’s not the issue. It’s right to work with European partners but let’s be grown up about it and be brave enough to look at the real causes and solutions and not the ones which fit the politics we want to promote.  By leading the way in making positive moves to support those fleeing their homelands we will earn the title of being a Global Britain.