We knew this could happen. The moment we saw those flimsy dinghies in the Channel, packed with desperate people trying to reach the UK, we understood. As night follows day, it was clear that terrible harm might strike a human life on this impossibly perilous journey. It was a tragedy foreseen, though no less shocking or heart-breaking when, yesterday, a Sudanese person was discovered drowned. A young life cut short, senselessly and avoidably. He was found dead on a beach near Calais after trying to cross the sea with a friend in an inflatable dinghy, using shovels as oars. As the Metro’s front page put it: “He didn’t stand a chance.”
The ghoulish blame game has already begun. Priti Patel, the home secretary, was warned that her policy of blocking safe asylum routes would cost lives, but is pointing the finger at people smugglers (French reports say smugglers were not involved in this case).
She says the person’s death is upsetting, yet days ago she was ramping up hostile rhetoric against people seeking asylum and planning to send warships to stop them. Conservative MPs blame France for not halting boats leaving its shores and bearing people seeking refuge, as they are legally entitled to do in the UK.
The shadow home secretary issued a mealy-mouthed message about addressing “the exploitative behaviour of criminal gangs” – again suggesting the problem is with crooked smugglers, rather than a lack of safe alternatives. Meanwhile, right-wing commentators see people desperate enough to attempt agonisingly dangerous sea-crossings and claim that Britain is full, or ask why asylum seekers don’t stay in France. Answers are not difficult to find: their destination may be set by smugglers; people may have family or other connections in the UK; they could have English language skills, or face mistreatment and appalling conditions elsewhere. And, actually, most do stay in France.
We have been here before, many times, tragedy upon tragedy, with people found suffocated to death in UK-bound lorries, or drowned in the Channel. Each time, sorrow at the shocking loss of life is subsumed by normal-service scaremongering about supposed “record” numbers of people seeking asylum in the UK. According to the UN’s Refugee Agency, Britain received about 35,566 asylum claims last year, compared with 142,500 in Germany and 123,000 in France. The pandemic has cut off lorry routes to the UK, forcing people into taking sea routes. So far, about 4,000 have done so this year, a small number hysterically depicted as an invasion. But facts never get in the way of the endless, demonising narrative of migrants “jumping the queue” and rushing to enter “soft touch” Britain, a myth repeated across several decades by media and politicians of all stripes, hardening hearts and disfiguring our politics.
The cruel death of someone trying to reach Britain has caused some to wonder: where is our humanity? But the cold truth is that for a chunk of the population, such compassion is painfully lacking. According to a recent YouGov poll, almost half the population have little or no sympathy for people making perilous journeys across the Channel. The mood has grown so stone-hearted that broadcasters thought it reasonable to send crews on sturdy boats into the Channel to film people in dangerously faltering dinghies, like voyeurs of human suffering.
This is the reality we must reckon with: the hard right is politically rewarded for the most appalling scaremongering over migrants. A chunk of the population has been persuaded that harsh talk and punishing action against desperate people seeking asylum is sound cause for political support, far better than progressive promises to tackle social and economic iniquities in Britain – promises which, in any case, are not trusted. This is what Labour now tiptoes around and refuses to confront, for fear of alienating public sentiment. It is not just cowardly but politically inept, since there is no electoral success for a left wing that cannot offer an alternative narrative which peels support away from the populist right. The Conservatives, unable and unwilling to effect urgent economic change, divert attention with this spectacle of cruelty against “the other”. Rather than ask the government to do this more competently, the left has to engage in a long, slow task of untangling the knot of lies, prejudice, suspicion and despair that has made this migrant-bashing strategy so politically successful in the first place.
Someone who might have lived a regular life in Britain has died because he had no option other than to face cruel odds and terrifying danger. But we do have choices. We can offer safe asylum to those who need it and, at the same time, we can raise living standards and opportunities for everyone. Far from being mutually exclusive, these policies are bound together, forged in compassionate collectivism and a commitment to wealth redistribution. How many more senseless deaths do we have to witness before we realise that, and start fighting for it?
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