How to save the lives of migrants while you save money

As long as there is war, accelerating climate change and inequality, there will be displaced people – and migration. The Home Office mustn't forget its legal duty to protect them, says Olivia Bridge for the Immigration Advice Service

The EU launched Operation Sophia in 2015 to aid the sudden influx of asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, besides migrants undertaking the perilous crossing over the Mediterranean from Libya.

By 2017, however, motives had shifted from rescuing displaced people to preventing them from ever landing on European soil. NGO boats – branded “migrant taxis” by the Italian authorities – today face unprecedented penalties for search-and-rescue missions. For example, rescue ships face fines of €1m if they enter Italian waters. Although the move was condemned by the UN, current EU policy seems more content to see refugees drown than save them.

Perhaps emblematic of the UK’s egregious political climate and misplaced anti-migration hysteria, the Home Office has jumped aboard the EU’s strategy. Commanded by the EU’s coastguard agency, Frontex, planes or drones that hold no life-saving apparatus patrol the seas where official and NGO boats once sailed. Although Frontex refutes the growing criticism against it by asserting that drone footage is monitored by maritime experts, not one vessel has been saved since August 2018.

Inevitably, the death toll has increased, rocketing from a “historical average” of two per cent to 14 per cent this August, according to the German Green Party MEP Erik Marquardt. The deaths of more than 1,000 migrants have been recorded in the Mediterranean this year. This is despite the fact UNHCR figures show a dramatic decrease in those making the voyage.

The UK subscribed to Frontex’s operations in January, then Home Secretary Sajid Javid pledged £6m towards the drones, CCTV on French beaches and ports, and 24-7 night vision technology. The investment followed the Government’s previous £44.5m donation towards the construction of the so-called Great Wall of Calais to prevent another ‘jungle’ camp forming, besides round-the-clock surveillance in Dunkirk in 2018.

Yet the UK’s efforts do not stop there: Home Secretary Priti Patel met her French counterpart in August to draw up another action plan to “intensify” their joint efforts, which will see more resources going towards interceptions and shared intelligence systems. The Home Office is also flirting with the idea of using long-range thermal cameras at the cost of £2m to detect when boats depart France as well as next-generation lorry scanners to locate stowaways in freight trucks.

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The Home Office suggests the security measures are necessary to catch smugglers and traffickers – those who exploit refugees’ vulnerability for financial gain. However, it is the smuggled and trafficked who face the wrath of border forces.

Despite popular belief, those claiming asylum cannot be punished for exercising their international human right. To claim asylum in the UK, an individual must be unable to return to their country of residence due to a fear of persecution. This can be because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.

In the absence of safe legal migration routes, asylum seekers are permitted to enter via lorries and dinghies or any other means. Article 31 of the UN refugee convention protects them from being penalised for entering illegally, meaning those who swim or kayak the Channel, or those who cling to the undercarriages of lorries for hours, or those who give their life savings to smugglers so they can access overcrowded inflatable boats cannot not punished for doing so.

The EU’s solution to get around the law and to obstruct human rights is to litter the paths refugees cross with obstacles and technology, as if their journey isn’t difficult enough. What’s worse is that everybody knows that at least one third of refugees are children, many of whom arrive in foreign countries unaccompanied and alone.

If the UK were serious about preserving life, it would end this perverse game of cat and mouse by allowing asylum seekers to lodge their claim abroad while border forces would facilitate and escort their travel. Land routes would also be reopened so migrants weren’t tempted to cross the Mediterranean or the Channel, which Kent police describe as like “trying to cross the M25 at rush hour on foot”. Boats in distress, at a bare minimum, would also be rescued and safely escorted. The cost of these methods surely cannot outweigh the cost of human life racking up under the current measures.

The millions of pounds’ worth of investment in stopping asylum seekers appear to have been racked up for no other reason than political point scoring or keeping up with the Joneses: the UK welcomes disproportionately fewer refugees than the other EU member states – tens of thousands less. And that’s not considering the cost of deportation or detention, where the UK holds individuals indefinitely for £87.71 per person a day while those outside of detention are prohibited from working, receiving only £37.75 a week in financial aid until they receive refugee status, which can take months or years.

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The strain on British taxpayers would be lifted if the Home Office allowed asylum seekers to work while they waited. Such a move would be cheaper and come with far greater returns: working migrants contribute far more to the public purse than native Britons. They pay taxes, upfront NHS charges and don’t have access to public funds until they are eligible for settlement such as British citizenship – which is a decade-long wait.

Some voters may like to imagine Great Britain as an impenetrable island, hugged by barbed wire and patrolled 24-7 by dogs and drones. But as long as wars are waged, climate change continues to accelerate, inequality and poverty remain rife and unrest prevails around the world, there will be displaced people – and migration. The Home Office is bound by law to protect them, whether the British public or MPs like it or not.

Olivia Bridge is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service.