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Refugees in a dinghy. Photo: Unknown / Public domain

Refugees in a dinghy. Photo: Unknown / Public domain

As the government and media continue to mislead us over the refugee crisis, the reality of what they have to endure tells a different story, argues Norman Wood.

Over the last few weeks, the media has been filled with reports of an apparently overwhelming invasion of Britain by refugees crossing the channel from France in small boats. It has pretty much dominated the news cycle. Television stations such as BBC and Sky have even resorted to live coverage by waterborne reporters leisurely following overcrowded dinghies while delivering a reality TV or sports commentary-style stream of inanity over images of men, women and children frantically baling out water in an attempt to stay alive.

The narrative of hordes of “migrants” trying to illegally storm into the UK on a rampage of job stealing and benefit grasping is of course utterly false. It feeds the growing racism and xenophobia that are all too obvious in our society, and conveniently distracts from the all-too-real crises of Covid-19 and looming economic collapse. In times like these, scapegoats have always been useful.

The reality of the global refugee crisis is very different. There are now more refugees in the world than at any time since the end of the Second World war.  According to UNHCR figures, 79.5 million people (or 1% of the world's population) have been forced to flee their homes as a result of war and persecution. The vast majority have been displaced within their own country or into neighbouring countries. Pakistan and Turkey host more refugees than the whole of Europe combined.

Only a small fraction of refugees seek asylum in Europe and the UK is way down the list of countries receiving them.  Last year, there were 123,999 applications in France, 142,500 in Germany and only 35,566 in Britain. Despite the huge scale of the crisis, our country has not stepped up to its moral and legal responsibilities.  Over the last few years, we have seen the numbers of asylum seekers in the country dramatically falling (from 238,000 in 2009 to 133,000 in 2019), as the government has shut down what were already inadequate routes to claim asylum from outside the UK.

Despite the hysterical reports of massive increases in the numbers of people crossing from France over the last couple of months, the figures are actually about the same as they have been for the last couple of years (despite a steep rise in the number of refugees globally during that period). The apparent surge in the summer months is simply a reflection of the better weather. The only difference has been in the method employed.  With the restrictions on travel during the pandemic, there are fewer lorries to try and hide in, so people are driven to the even more desperate attempts to cross in small boats.

The language employed by media and government in talking about the situation is deliberately inflammatory and misleading.  People are described as ‘illegal migrants’ rather than refugees, but when we look at the details of who is trying to cross to the UK, we see a very different reality.

The EU external border control agency, Frontex, has found that the majority of the refugees in Calais and Dunkirk come from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq.  Driven out by war.  In other words: legitimately seeking asylum.  

The small numbers of refugees wishing to claim asylum in the UK, rather than elsewhere, do so typically because they have family here, links to communities here or simply because they speak English (often as a legacy of colonial links) and believe that Britain therefore offers their best hope of rebuilding their lives.

There is nothing illegal about crossing the channel to claim asylum, despite Boris Johnson's description of this as “criminal" and Priti Patel's characterisation that they “break the law by coming to the UK”. The UN's Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention make it clear that not only do people have a right to seek asylum, but that they are entitled to resort where necessary to “irregular" means to reach the country to which they are headed. That definitely includes travelling across the Channel in small boats when the more normal routes are denied to them.

The claim that refugees must seek asylum in the first safe country they come to is often made, but in fact this is nonsense.  While the EU’s Dublin Regulations refers to claims being examined in their first point of entry into the EU, this is superseded in international law by the 1951 Refugee Convention, which allows refugees a degree of choice in where they seek safety.  The only aspect that could be regarded as illegal is on the part of the smugglers to whom refugees often have no choice but to resort.

The existence of people smugglers feeds into the establishment narrative of criminality and “pull factors".  Priti Patel used this to deflect any public sympathy around the recent drowning of a young man, Abdul Fatah Hamdallah.  Cynically, she paid lip service to his death being a tragedy while blaming smugglers for enticing people into trying to make the dangerous crossing. In fact, this young man and a friend tried to cross in a tiny inflatable dinghy and used shovels instead of paddles.  Not a typical smuggler arrangement, which typically involves multiple people crowded onto an inflatable with an outboard.  It is far more likely that this was simply all they could find to make the attempt.

Whether or not smugglers were involved in this case, it amply demonstrates the real driving force behind such crossings – not manipulative criminals but straightforward desperation.

You only have to spend some time talking to the refugees in Northern France and witnessing the conditions there to completely understand that desperation. The British government has paid the French over £350 million over the last 10 years for the “securitisation” of our border in France (our border is on the other side of the channel, which is why your passport is checked at the terminal there and not when you arrive in the UK).  

What this means isn’t just the steel barriers, razor wire etc that you can’t miss around the terminals and along the approach roads.  It also involves a systematic and deliberately brutal regime administered by the French CRS riot police. Every other day, police descend on any camp and destroy it.  Tents and sleeping bags distributed by charities on average survive two or three days before police destroy them. Attacks by police in the middle of the night are commonplace and the sight of refugees with injuries from these attacks is routine.

There is essentially no provision of sanitation.  In the last few months, even the one or two public taps serving 1000+ refugees have been removed. The situation is deliberately brutal and the constant ‘clearances’ apparently pointless – clearly not intended to resolve anything other than to make life as unendurable as possible.

The situation during the pandemic has deteriorated even further as the small charities providing the only real support have struggled with restrictions and a drying up of donations and volunteers, while the authorities seem to be using the situation as an opportunity to make things even tougher while avoiding any scrutiny. Can anyone wonder why people facing such extreme circumstances come to the conclusion that it is actually preferable to risk their lives on the sea to reach a place they hope will be safer?

The reality of the current crisis is that relatively small numbers of refugees desperately need our help. Given the wealth our country still enjoys, it is help we can well afford to give. Morally and legally, it is help we should be giving.  Instead, we live in a society where ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’ is an actual job title and where the best the Leader of the Opposition can manage is to ignore his own party's policies on defending the rights of refugees and mumble about government “incompetence”. Unless government policy changes radically, and swiftly, history will not judge us well.

Tagged under: Refugees Covid19
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