Our CEO, Duncan McAuley, reflects on yesterday’s tragic news and explains why the government’s announcement on new measures to deter people seeking asylum here are unlikely to stop people making such a dangerous journey.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby wrote of the tragic deaths in the Channel yesterday, “It’s another reminder that debates about asylum seekers are not about statistics, but precious human lives.”
He of course is right. We shouldn’t need a reminder, but often we do. You only need to look briefly at the Prime Minister’s briefing on “Illegal Immigration” given just the day before, to see as much.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to share, in my local church, about the dangerous journeys asylum seekers make to come to the UK and afterwards I was stopped in my tracks when my Kurdish friend, Saber, approached me and told me he had lost friends and neighbours in the incident only months ago in November 2021. I came face to face with the human cost of our national policies and I didn’t know what to say. What could I say to a man who had lost friends in their attempt to find safety here?
Like many others, I’m shocked and saddened to hear the news of people dying crossing the Channel yesterday and my prayers are with their loved ones and all those directly affected by this tragic event. As well as sad, I’m also angry. No one risks their own, or their family’s life, unless they are fleeing something worse and they should not face such dangers to reach safety in our country.
The deaths yesterday were a tragedy, but they were also inevitable. Over the past years we have spent millions of pounds militarising our borders, trying to stop people getting here and forcing them to make dangerous journeys with no clear rationale as to why. Firstly, when the Home Office assesses the claims of those who do make it, over 75 per cent are deemed genuine. Secondly, there is no evidence that this approach of ‘deterrence’ is working, as numbers of arrivals continue their slow upward trend.
For most nationalities almost no safe routes for refugees to get to the UK exist, even from countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. The only option left to them to seek our protection is to take a dangerous journey. To be honest I think anger is an appropriate response.
Our policy of ‘deterrence’ doesn’t stop at the border and it is this aspect I’d like to spend a few moments reflecting on, specifically as relates to Rishi Sunak’s address earlier this week.
In 2012 the UK began the creation of a hostile environment, the principle of which is to make life difficult for migrants and therefore encourage them to leave. Sunak promised an increase in workplace raids and immigration checks on existing bank accounts, which are contrary to the clear recommendations following the Windrush scandal and demonstrate a commitment to the obviously ineffective hostile environment policy.
Sunak also promised to clear the asylum backlog by the end of 2023, a positive intention given that there are 143,000 people waiting for a decision and unable to work, over 100,000 for more than six months and some for more than two years. A later clarification brought the figure down to the 92,601 claims made before the Nationality and Borders Act came into force, but this is still a sizeable task, and possibly an unachievable one. Given that it appears we have been willing to let it grow to its current size for the last six to eight years, it would take a significant commitment from the Home Office to recruit and retain sufficient staff to tackle this significant problem. Time will tell if this is still a political priority in a year’s time.
Also promised was a renewed commitment to the Rwanda scheme, promising to deport vulnerable people, coming to the UK to seek safety and sanctuary to a country known for an authoritarian government and a record of poor human rights. Unsurprisingly the scheme is currently stalled due to a legal challenge based on its morality and the basic rights of those subjected to it. What’s more there is no evidence it ‘deters’ Channel crossings at all.
I could go on, but to do so would be to be caught in the trap Justin Welby warns against – to get lost in the politics and forget the individual lives at stake.
It is certain that we need safe routes and quickly. It is also clear that this is not a simple exercise as we would like to sometimes believe. Creating robust mechanisms would require significant cooperation with our European neighbours made harder still now we are out of the EU and the ‘Dublin’ agreement, the mechanism for returning individuals to another country if their claim is deemed inadmissible. There is no indication that we are expanding the safe routes available, instead the approach of ‘deterrence’ is reimagined and enforced with increasing cruelty and increasing cost.
So what can I do with my anger?
As my friend Saber advised, I can remember, I can pray and I can continue fighting for change.
The hashtag #SafeRoutesNow is being used on social media in response to the tragedy and we hope those taking action, holding vigils or posting messages might consider using this too – in a show of solidarity and shared response.
And if you would like to express your solidarity with those who have had to make dangerous journeys, or those who face the devastation of having lost loved ones, the Refugee Council has created an online board where you can leave a message of solidarity. They will share your messages with the refugees they work with, many of whom feel deeply affected by yesterday’s news.
Write a message of solidarity ➡️
(Thanks to https://unsplash.com/@heytowner for the main image on this page).