Today, asylum seekers are in the Channel but it is a global crisis we need to weather


In the space of six years, around 1,100 people died at sea on small boats, only slightly more seaworthy than those crossing the Channel. Then, they were making the perilous journey that stretches thousands of kilometres from Indonesia to Australia.

In 2013, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott, implemented a policy of turning back the boats and stronger off-shore detention. The number of refugees arriving fell from a high point of 20,587 to 450 in the space of a year. Only six boats arrived last year.

On Thursday, at least 27 people drowned after making a similar journey from France to the UK, across the Channel. Priti Patel was tasked with stopping people from crossing the Channel; her and her small boats commander, Dan O’Mahoney, have repeatedly vowed to make the crossing “unviable”.

As of November, more than 23,000 people have arrived on small boats this year. The year before, that number was just shy of 8,500. Of the 37,500 applications for asylum in the UK, two thirds were granted. Meanwhile, the speed of processing people has faltered.

When Australia implemented the turn back the boats policy, politicians clapped their hands together, patted one another on the back and said job well done. In the UK, Priti Patel has followed a similar approach: the deaths at sea are the result of evil gangs, preying on the desperate hopes of people fleeing persecution.

This is true. But making the Channel unviable will not solve the problem. Nor will plans to hand out four year prison sentences to those arriving illegally.

If refugees are not going to Australia, or hopping onto rafts in Calais, or washing up on the shores of Greece, the problem is not solved.

It is only ever an abdication of responsibility. If the refugees are not in Australia, they are languishing in Indonesia, where they are subject to a completely different set of risks other than dying at sea. If they are not at Dover, they are in France. If they are not in France, they are in Belgium, paying literal blood money to be smuggled onto lorries.

If it is not the Taliban pushing people out of their countries, it will be some other autocratic regime, some other excruciating hardship. If it is not dictatorships, it will be climate change.

By 2050, the African population is set to double in size. In Nigeria, there will be 400 million people living in a region roughly the size of France. According to the Foreign Office’s own estimates, rising temperatures could mean hundreds of millions of displaced people over the next century.

The short term implications are problems for individual states. For the UK, there needs to be an asylum system which works, which gives people another option. But that needs to be underpinned by, yes, working with France. It means repairing a relationship which has been straining at the seams. But the French truly do have an impossible task on their hands – patrolling hundreds kilometres of coast.

The long-term implications will require us to accept something that has always been true: people move, they seek better fortunes, better living conditions. In the same way tackling problems like climate change, terrorism or trade cannot be done in isolation, neither can asylum seekers.

But it is in no one’s interests to help anyone else. If France helps us, the refugees are their problem. The parallels with the climate change conundrum are stark: any country who, in isolation, sacrifices short-term economic gain to push for a net zero strategy puts themselves at an economic disadvantage.

Turning back the boats worked in Australia, but it was never meant to be the end of the policy. If we put a laser-like focus on the Channel, with nothing else to back it up, asylum seekers will turn up elsewhere. Desperation has a way of seeping through the cracks. Even if Priti Patel, eventually, succeeds in making the crossing “unviable” it will not be a job well done. This is a never-ending fight which cannot be solved solely on those green benches of parliament.

Countries around the world must begin to acknowledge that even if the migrant crisis is not currently pushing in at their borders, it will be eventually: now, it is Britain’s problem, but the burden is on Western democracies to shoulder. 

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