I find the government’s attitude to the Channel crisis disturbing – they just don’t care enough

Ministers like Priti Patel talk tough, but achieve so little

Jess Phillips
Thursday 25 November 2021 20:29
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Patel ‘not achieving anything’ on Channel crossings, says Keir Starmer

The tragedy of lives lost in the Channel was predictable. In fact it was predicted by many. It will make us pause for a second in the rhetorical war on the refugee and migrant crisis and remember that these were people, just like you and me.

People who had hopes of safety and security for their families. Some are those who assisted British forces in Afghanistan and found that meant that their lives were threatened when those British forces left. Others used to be architects, shop owners, school teachers in Syria and found that their towns and cities were destroyed in a war that was never about them.

The trouble is we fail to see this unless they give their lives to the sea or are suffocated en masse in the back of a lorry. For some reason it takes their death to see their humanity.

Unlike many of my colleagues in the House of Commons, and certainly much more so than many in the Home Office, I represent many refugees. Birmingham was the hub airport for the evacuation of Afghan refugees in recent weeks, but even before that I would frequently get calls late on a Sunday evening with details from the Home Office about how a new influx of people were being housed in a hotel in my constituency because they couldn’t find them anywhere else. The Home office will claim again and again that they provide local authorities like mine with the finances to support these people, in my experience they absolutely don’t. Local councils and local people are the ones who actually do this.

Rarely a week goes by where I’m not sat in front of an Afghan refugee or a Syrian family. I remember one man who had been a master carpenter back home near Idlib, now unable to work, offered to help fix something in my office. Or the woman who had been a specialist heart surgery nurse at home in Iraq, now untrained and working a few hours a week in a petrol station. While they are here, they are simply a piece of rhetoric. Everything that went before, the tapestry of their humanity wiped out by their immigration status.

Priti Patel, the daughter of refugees herself, has to face that her hardline rhetoric might sound good to her audience, but it is as flimsy as many of the vessels currently bobbing up and down in the Channel. It is marketing, nothing more. Rarely have we had a home secretary as vitriolic towards these human beings, and yet, guess what, it isn’t working. More people are coming no matter how much she beats her drum.

Unsurprisingly, regardless of the fact that Priti Patel loves to bandy around stories about illegals, there is still war in Syria, the Taliban still reign supreme pointing weapons in the face of Afghan citizens. As Priti Patel bangs on about pushing refugees back, more trafficking gangs count their notes, and others relish the political capital in mass human suffering.

The government want the public to genuinely believe that the borders bill they are currently working through parliament is some kind of panacea. The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has made clear the bill is rushed and dangerous. For example, the bill will see women who have been trafficked and put in brothels and repeatedly raped placed in detention and deported if they don’t get their paperwork in in time. The government think their bill is some kind of miracle set of words that will stop Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus from encouraging refugees towards EU borders, or will suddenly make the army of Bashar al-Assad or the Taliban lay down their weapons. As predictable as deaths in the Channel, I predict that after the borders bill inevitably passes we will see the exact same number of people seeking refuge in our country. The borders bill just allows the government to look tough, it won’t stop the boats in the Channel.

The sentencing bill currently in parliament sees the government blowing out their chests about how tough they are on crime. Yet this week figures from the Office of National Statistics told us exactly how tough they are, because domestic abuse-related crimes have increased. Don’t even start me on how, if anything, years of degraded courts and police forces means the government is far from being tough on rapists. Tough, it seems, is just a word they say, rather than a thing they do.

The solution to the refugee and migrant crisis has got to be found in alliances, diplomacy, investment and aid – to enable more people to live the kind of lives elsewhere that we expect in Britain. The only way to be tough on migration is to be tough on the root causes of migration. Alas, there are very few good headlines, or rounds of applause in conference halls to be had for global alliances, European cooperation, foreign aid and safe legal routes to safety.

So instead, the government will just act all tough, point fingers at liberals (people who don’t like people dying in the sea) and achieve absolutely nothing.

Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

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