The news stops you in your tracks. Twenty-seven people – including a pregnant woman and at least three children – drowned in freezing cold waters. These people were desperately attempting to reach safety in Britain. It is the worst loss of life in the Channel in living memory.
Yet listening to Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, you would think it was business as usual. More money pledged, more patrols at the border and more of the same failed approach. Stronger measures and stricter border control are sold as the only way to finally break the business model of criminal gangs. By talking tough about tackling smugglers, the government promises there will be no more dangerous crossings.
It is of course convenient for governments to blame the smugglers, to tactfully divert attention away whilst they shirk their responsibilities to help those in need of sanctuary. The reality is the government’s refusal to provide safe routes to the UK for refugees is a field day for smugglers.
The smuggling business model only exists because desperate people have no safe alternative. In recent years, increased security at the border hasn’t meant fewer people are trying to reach the UK but it has forced people to take ever more risky and dangerous routes – even the government’s own research recognises this. Once children risked their lives in the back of refrigerated lorries; now they climb into flimsy dinghies to cross the Channel.
When refugees are forced to flee from the only life they’ve ever known, it’s a long and dangerous struggle to find safety. No one wants to see people crammed onto unseaworthy vessels, boats launched into the world’s busiest shipping lane, but for the vast majority of refugees, the only way to travel to safety and to family is in the hands of smugglers. The callous rhetoric from politicians on both sides of the Channel dehumanises and deflects from the painful reality that these are people – men, women and children going to extraordinary lengths to reach safety, sanctuary and loved ones here in the UK.
Today must mark a turning point. This awful loss of life should never have happened and must never happen again. Rather than double down on policies that have failed to prevent death and pushed people to take ever more dangerous risks, the government must urgently open safe routes to the UK for refugees. No more rhetoric and vague unmet promises – now is the time to deliver.
The government has so far failed to open a safe route for Afghan refugees following the evacuation efforts – there must be no more delay. In the last year, the government has closed routes to sanctuary, abandoning child refugees alone in Europe and keeping families apart. These routes must be replaced. And the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill being debated in parliament, which would further restrict many family reunions and deny protections to thousands of refugees from Afghanistan to Sudan, must now be scrapped. Instead of playing politics, the government must work with the French to agree on a way for refugees already in France who have strong connections with the UK to have safe passage to make an asylum application here.
Priti Patel has made ending Channel crossings a test of her tenure as home secretary but has presided over the closure of safe routes and doubled down on failed tactics. It’s time for the government to get a grip and put in place the effective solutions that will save lives and give refugees the opportunity to safely rebuild everything here in the UK. It is only by creating clear, concrete and safe alternatives that they will put the smugglers out of business.
Beth Gardiner-Smith is CEO of Safe Passage
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