Opinion

The Channel crossing deaths must be a turning point for this government

Safe routes will save people crossing the Channel, not border patrols, says Minnie Rahman from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants

Hundreds of people have died crossing the Channel since 1999. Image: foundin_a_attic/Flickr

Last week at least 27 people lost their lives in a cold stretch of sea in the middle of the night. These were people with hopes and dreams, fears and futures. They were coming to the UK to build safe and happy lives, to re-join fiancés and family. It should never have been the case that their only way here was a perilous crossing in a small dinghy.

No-one’s first choice is getting in a small inflatable across the English channel, but right now people seeking refuge in the UK are left with little other option. In recent years, this government has closed down almost every safe route to asylum that existed. The Syrian resettlement programme shut last year, the Dubs scheme for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children has closed, family reunion routes have narrowed. And three months after this government announced it, their much-touted Afghan resettlement programme is still not open. These safe routes to asylum were never enough, but they were a start.

This government should have maintained and expanded safe passage for people seeking asylum – not least since the fall of Afghanistan. Instead, they have thrown more and more money at border fences and police patrols. This hard-line approach has done nothing to prevent dangerous crossings or save lives: it has only made channel crossings deadlier. As more checks at ports were introduced people have increasingly taken to small boats. And as border spending has rocketed these past five years, we’ve seen over 150 people drown in attempts to cross the channel.

The government has long known that its hard-line border policies would lead to more tragedy and exploitation. In 2019, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, of which Priti Patel was a member, warned that “policies which focus exclusively on closing borders drive migrants to take more dangerous routes, and push them into the hands of criminal groups”. Yet again, and again, we see this government pursuing the same dangerous tactics the evidence warns against. 

In recent months, Priti Patel has employed a ‘Channel Threat Commander’, and spent millions on surveillance and fences around Calais. She has talked up the potential of wave machines in the channel, dinghy push-backs on jet-skis and offshore asylum camps to ‘deter’ people from crossing. And she is pushing through a cruel new Borders Bill which seeks to effectively criminalise people who’ve sought safety here via ‘irregular routes’, despite this being a clear breach of international refugee law.

We know, and this government knows, that these cruel proposals will not stop people crossing – they will only lead to more risk, exploitation, and tragedy for those who cross. We know that a small number of people will continue seeking sanctuary in Britain. People come to re-unite with family, to find safety and belonging in a country where they speak the language, people come because of our shared historical or colonial ties. People will continue to seek sanctuary here, regardless of how much money our home secretary chucks at barbed wire fences and police patrols.

It’s time our government woke up to reality and started acting with compassion and pragmatism. Instead of playing political football with people’s lives, this government should be upholding our commitment to refugee protection. Instead of pushing people into the hands of people smugglers it should be establishing safe routes here – expanded family reunion routes, for example, humanitarian visas which would allow people seeking asylum a regulated means of travel, and of course new and expanded resettlement schemes which transfer refugees to the UK directly.

Last week’s tragedy must be a turning point for this government. Their current approach will only lead to more deaths at our borders – a rational and compassionate approach could end this situation for good.

Minnie Rahman is interim chief executive at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

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