People crossing the Channel as a last resort deserve empathy not anger

I dream of a day when I will not have to recount my trauma whenever a dinghy capsizes

<p>A Border Force vessel approaches a group of people in the Channel (Gareth Fuller/PA)</p>

A Border Force vessel approaches a group of people in the Channel (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Dunkirk has a history of bloody shores and what many fear is a new chapter in that story in the wake of 27 people - people, not migrants - drowning with sanctuary in sight. You can tell a million stories about this sinking, but one comes first. Tragedy.

A popular theme is one of invasion: opportunistic, economic migrants - terrorists, possibly - breaching UK borders. I’m sure the people telling this story have never known the trials of the migrant trail. Priti Patel has claimed the majority are “economic migrants” (contrary to her own Home Office’s data) because they are men travelling alone. Let me explain a little why. War is caused by men and, at least in terms of conscription, men are usually its first victims. And while women make up half of our stateless nation, the risks are even greater for women. And so we travel, on behalf of our families. We tell ourselves that through family reunification, we may be able to bring them over. Only a fraction will be granted that dream. But at least we might find labour to pay smugglers to bring them over.

Perhaps the most fascinating story is the story of organised crime. Profit-hungry smugglers manipulating "desperate, helpless" people into dinghies. In my experience, this story is a fiction. I crossed the Aegean in a dinghy I built at gunpoint; I have been beaten and robbed by smugglers. But I do not need you to rescue me from them. I do not care if you throw them in jail for life. Blaming smugglers is an unsophisticated, evasive technique the government uses to deflect its responsibility, as underlined in international treaties to which they signed up.

It is deeply ironic that "safe, legal routes" are official government buzzwords. This is the government whose vaunted Afghan Resettlement Scheme remains merely on paper three months after its launch. The same government who capped the Dubs scheme - the only hope for many refugee children - at less than 500 out of the 3,000 planned. It is precisely the lack of safe, legal routes that creates the market for smuggling. I remember, before I took my first step on my cross-continent journey to sanctuary, that the first thing I learnt - the first thing any of us learn - is that the only way of getting asylum is reaching that country first. I remember thinking how bizarre that logic was.

A more beautiful myth is El Dorado: that the UK is a golden land on which all our sights are set. In fact more than 85 per cent of the entire displaced population in the world have NEVER set foot in Europe. The movement you see on your Channel is a trickle of the crisis. But that crisis is real, and cannot be contained by barbed wire. If the journey of those 27 souls was anything like mine, the Channel was a last resort following relentless cruelty at every step of the way. Refugees do not see the safe European countries you do. We see the firm fist of a law that considers our existence illegal. We are pushed to the edge of the continent, and then off it. But nothing is more hostile than the place we flee. That’s a race you cannot win.

I dream of a day when I will not have to recount my trauma whenever a dinghy capsizes, simply to ask for empathy. A little empathy, and those 27 souls would be among us today. And possibly our friends tomorrow.

Steve Ali is a writer and silversmith from Damascus, Syria

www.refugeemediacentre.org

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