Capsized migrant boat Capsized migrant boat. Photo: Royal Netherlands Navy / Coast Guard News / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The tragic deaths of refugees trying to get to Britain are the consequence of the government’s hostile environment, argues Shabbir Lakha

There has rightly been widespread outrage at the horrific news of 27 refugees drowning in the Channel Sea. The victims, among whom was a pregnant woman and three children, drowned when the flimsy dinghy they were on capsized close to the coast of Calais as they attempted to get to the UK.

Much of the indignation from public officials has been directed at people smugglers. French authorities swiftly detained five men suspected of involvement in the crossing and Boris Johnson said, “this disaster underscores how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way, and it also shows how vital it is that we now step up our efforts to break the business model of the gangsters who are sending people to sea in this way.”

The only reason that refugees are even put into the position of having to rely on human traffickers is because of Britain and the EU’s border policies and the non-existence of safe routes to claim asylum.

On Thursday, The Times revealed that among the refugees that had made it to British shores that day were Afghan soldiers who had worked with the British army and faced life-threatening danger from the Taliban. They came with their children because they couldn’t wait any longer. The first known victim of the 27 was a 24-year-old Iraqi Kurdish woman who was trying to reach her fiancé in Britain.

The Refugee Council published new analysis earlier this month that showed 91% of refugees that crossed the Channel in the last 18 months came from just ten countries which included Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen – countries that Britain has played a leading role in destroying. These refugees are Britain’s responsibility, yet the Tories would prefer to let them drown than to let them in.

Since November 2020, the Tories have paid the French government £82m to increase police patrols on the coast to stop refugees crossing. Following pressure from the UK government, last week France cleared out a refugee camp in Dunkirk and evicted over 1,000 people. Where did these governments think they were going to go?

So determined is Priti Patel to stop refugees reaching the UK, that she is exploring ways to “offshore” refugees, including a leaked plan that involved flying refugees out to Albania (something the Albanian government quickly put paid to). In a letter that pissed off Macron, Johnson demanded talks to create a “UK-EU returns agreement” (yes, he’s talking about human beings) to allow the UK to send refugees back to France.

Over the last two months, the Home Office has been training Border Force agents to turn around refugee boats in the Channel and push them back into French waters – a policy that is in violation of international law and which is currently facing several legal challenges.

Incredibly, Priti Patel has used this tragedy as an argument for her Nationality and Borders Bill which is currently going through Parliament. The Bill will expand the government’s ability to detain and imprison “illegal” asylum seekers and to prosecute those who try to rescue refugees drowning in the sea, among other means of criminalising those seeking refuge.

These policies are mirrored by the EU’s Frontex border agency with its warships stopping refugee boats in the Mediterranean, the Greek government illegally pushing back refugees in the Aegean, the Polish government violently stopping refugees on its border with Belarus and letting them freeze to death.

With the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the unfolding consequences of Western devastation of the Middle East and neocolonial policies in sub-Saharan Africa, and the accelerating breakdown of the climate, the desperation of people trying to seek refuge will only grow greater. European governments have shown that they are determined to stop rather than help those fleeing the very catastrophes they’ve created.

The hope lies in the response of ordinary people choosing to save lives instead of joining the ruling class’s scapegoating of refugees and migrants. On the Polish border, people have switched on green lights in their homes to let refugees know they will help them. On Greek, Italian, French and Kentish coastal towns, volunteers have organised to rescue and welcome refugees.

Across the UK there are protests demanding safe passage and an end to Priti Patel’s hostile environment. It is up to us to build the kind of international mass movement needed to force our governments to end their murderous policies.

Join the Stand Up To Racism protest outside Downing Street at 2pm on Saturday: Don’t Let Them Drown: Refugees Welcome

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Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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