The 27 people, including a pregnant woman and a number of children, who died in tragic circumstances in the Channel, are obviously the victims of exploitative people smugglers in the first instance, but also the victims of a decades-long toxic political debate in this country on migration and asylum.
Certainly the government, but even the Labour front bench, seem to be more concerned about sounding “tough” on asylum seekers than trying to change the political narrative. And ending the rhetorical arms race on immigration and asylum policy is the only way forward on this issue. The solutions to the small boats crossing the Channel issue are not simple. But they start with politicians on both sides stopping calling it an asylum crisis.
Clearly, everything must be done to apprehend the ruthless criminal people smugglers. But overall there is not an asylum crisis – there are around six asylum applications for every 10,000 people in the UK. And we take far fewer asylum seekers than countries like France and Germany.
There are undoubtedly more asylum seekers turning up on British beaches having crossed the English channel in hopelessly unseaworthy small boats. But this is only because the number of asylum seekers arriving on the back of lorries and by air has dropped sharply. We are not seeing a total rise in the number of asylum seekers, just displacement from one set of routes to another. This is no consolation to some Tories on the back benches desperate to appease the section of their support that is hostile to immigration of any kind.
The other thing that needs to happen is that the home secretary, Priti Patel, drops stupid ideas like wave machines, sending British boats to turn around the asylum seekers mid-Channel and sending asylum seekers to be processed offshore in countries such as Albania. The first two ideas would put lives at risk and processing asylum seekers offshore would cost a ridiculous amount of money, even if a country could be found to go along with the idea. Albania, for instance, is insisting that it will have nothing to do with it. All these ideas would also, almost certainly, put Britain in breach of its international obligations.
The first practical step to checking the flow of asylum seekers trying to cross the Channel would be much better international cooperation. And not just cooperation between England and France. An adversarial approach to France, veering between cooperation and provocation is not helping anyone. Countries across Europe need to work side-by-side. Of course pan-European cooperation is harder since we left the EU, but that is just one of the many reasons why Brexit has been a disaster for British interests.
Beyond that, the government also needs to put more effort into establishing safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to get here. This would include the Dubs scheme, which was meant to make it easier for unaccompanied child refugees to come to Britain and the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme, which the Home Office has not even been put into operation yet.
Less anti-migrant rhetoric, better international cooperation and facilitating desperate people to exercise their legal right to claim asylum. These are the only ways that we will stop the English Channel becoming a cemetery.
Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington
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