Channel drownings: a preventable tragedy?

Three weeks ago, Bubble writer Victoria Cheng wrote of the perilous journey migrants face when crossing the icy waters of the English Channel, and the failures of the British and French governments in cooperating to solve the crisis.

Three days later, 27 migrants – including a child and a pregnant woman – drowned, after their inflatable dinghy capsized. Four men have been arrested in connection with the deaths.

But was this tragedy preventable, and if so, how?

At the core of the Channel migration crisis lies a relationship in tatters, and one who’s repair is central to finding a workable solution to this crisis: that of France and the United Kingdom.

This latest loss of life on the Channel represents the single greatest since records began, and has thrown the human cost of what many often see as a political issue into sharp relief.

Yet, if one expected this humanitarian catastrophe to precipitate much needed introspection from the French and British governments, they would sadly be mistaken. Instead, in the aftermath British and French officials have become embroiled in a politically motivated blame game, with both sides’ rhetoric of cooperation quickly descending into a series of childish snipes by diplomats.

On November 25th, the day after the tragedy, Mr Johnson sent a letter to President Macron outlining several steps to prevent further disaster, though not before tweeting the letter to the masses. Macron and French officials shot back, retorting that the letter was “mediocre” and “not serious”, nor Twitter the appropriate means of delivery.

For their part, Macron and his team have hardly projected an image of measured diplomacy in the face of tragedy either. In an equally petulant display, French interior minister Gerald Darmanin cancelled British Home Secretary Priti Patel’s invitation to emergency talks on the crisis.

 Of course, relations between France and Britain had soured long before the latest debacle, with President Macron dismayed by continual disputes over fishing rights, the infamous “sausage wars” over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and an arms agreement with Australia Macron feels the UK and US scuppered for France.

But relations haven’t always been this fraught, and both sides have previously cooperated to some degree. In July, the UK pledged £54 million to France to strengthen and tighten French ports against unofficial migration. Investments were made into heat sensors, increased surveillance cameras, higher fences, and greater checks on freight departing Calais. This investment was made with one thing in mind- making the route via road less attractive for migrants. In this light, it seems to have been a success.

Indeed, the number of migrants travelling via the Channel tunnel plummeted. But with the route via road closed, another, far more treacherous route became necessary – via sea. In small inflatable dinghies, often organised by human traffickers, migrants would sail across the English Channel, routinely risking their lives.

Unsurprisingly, in 2021 the numbers of migrants making the treacherous journey across the Channel boomed. More than 25,000 migrants have crossed this year, compared to around 8,500 in 2020.

The solution to the crisis seems clear: open safer, legal routes for migrants. After all, Home Office figures find that 98% of people coming across the Channel apply for asylum, while analysis by the Refugee Council finds that around two-thirds are successful in their applications, begging the question: why force migrants with legitimate claims to asylum to travel via such a perilous route?

Yet, with cooperation between Macron and Johnson stalling, the British government have taken a different path. Instead, the Home Office has pushed ahead with the Nationalities and Borders Bill. Among the more punitive clauses of the Bill, which passed a Commons third reading on Wednesday by a majority of 67, are proposals to introduce:

  • “new and tougher criminal offences for those attempting to enter the UK illegally by raising the penalty for illegal entry from 6 months to 4 years”;
  • powers for Border Force to “stop and divert vessels suspected of carrying illegal migrants” and to “return them to where their sea journey to the UK began”
  • “the ability to “declare as inadmissible those who come here from a country where they could have claimed asylum”

Under these proposals, it appears the British government are intent on criminalising the very act of “irregular” arrival into the United Kingdom, despite their being little evidence that suggests harsher enforcement measures dissuade migrants.

In fact, as raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, under the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which the United Kingdom was a founding signatory, it is widely understood that the Convention doesn’t allow for a differentiation of refugees based simply on their route of arrival. Put simply, migrants cannot be penalised merely for entering a safe country illegally. Nor does international law stipulate refugees must settle in the first safe country they enter, as the Bill suggests should be the case.

More worrying still, critics suggest the legislation may actually play into the hands of human traffickers. In a message posted to Twitter, Johnson stressed the need to “break the business model of the gangsters”, positing that the proposed legislation would do just that.

Yet under the new proposals, the government can feasibly be said to perpetuate the very business cycle it seeks to destroy, for the human traffickers business model rests upon the continual desperation of migrants and a profound lack of alternative, safer routes.

If the government were to provide safer routes, perhaps by granting migrants fleeing conflict and persecution the ability to apply for new humanitarian visas in France, and allowing the processing of migrants into Britain from France or an embassy abroad, migrants with legitimate claims to asylum, which make up the vast majority, would not have to risk their lives.

As it stands, officially sanctioned safer routes are largely shut. The Syrian scheme, set up to provide asylum for migrants fleeing persecution and civil war in Syria, no longer exists. The Dubs scheme – providing protection for lone child refugees – has ended. More recently, the UK’s decision to leave the EU has removed us from Dublin III, under which migrants can be returned to the first EU country they entered. And, although we receive assurances an Afghan scheme shall be set up, it has yet to be unveiled.

Channel crossings will likely fall as the waves get choppier, and the waters icier. Yet, come spring, the numbers making this life-threatening journey will surely rise again. If Britain and France are serious about preventing the English Channel becoming a graveyard for migrants, their relationship must be repaired, and political persuasions pushed aside. So too must the British government recognise the inherent failures of the old system in their creation of the new.

Last month’s tragedy was a preventable one, and so are future tragedies. But, if the current course is not corrected, if relations aren’t repaired and legislation isn’t amended, this crisis will inevitably worsen and more lives will be lost.

Image courtesy of Jeanne Menjoulet via Flickr with license

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