We may never know the names of the 27 people who died trying to cross the English Channel to seek asylum. Or those of the many others who have probably perished without ever being found. In that perilous stretch of water, refugee groups say, bodies can be swept up in currents and never make land.
Tragedies like this force us to look at things which make us uneasy. Ours was not just a third country these desperate people were passing through, but their destination, their hope.
Britain thinks of itself as a big-hearted country. There was barely a murmur when the government offered almost 3m Hong Kongers the chance to settle in the UK, nor when it pledged to accept 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan. But when people arrive chaotically in small boats, wariness erodes sympathy, and there is fear that we are a “soft touch”.
These boats expose the final lie of a government which promised to “take back control” after Brexit, but is now discovering that it can’t control a border from only one side. For the government which left the EU single market in order to end free movement, stopping the boats is a political imperative. But ramping up the rhetoric against France has spectacularly backfired — as demonstrated by the Elysee’s decision to rescind UK home secretary Priti Patel’s invitation to Sunday’s interministerial summit on migration in Calais. Now it is outside the EU, it turns out that Britain needs France a great deal more than France needs it.
Yet UK prime minister Boris Johnson cannot resist the temptation to pretend the opposite. With lives at stake, his letter on Thursday to President Emmanuel Macron was breathtaking in its smugness and hypocrisy. Urging the French to establish joint patrols is something you do through diplomatic back channels, with enormous delicacy, not by publishing a letter claiming that Britain had all the best ideas and that France needs to step up. If this is how tone-deaf we are in international negotiations, I fear for our future.
Britain has no right to adopt such a stance, given that our current asylum system is both inhumane and ineffective. It doesn’t give voters confidence, nor asylum seekers dignity. We lock up new arrivals and don’t let them work. This would make more sense if we robustly deported those whose claims for asylum are found inadmissible, or those with criminal records, but we don’t. Some melt into the underground economy; others bring multiple appeals until settlement becomes a fact. So the public remains supportive of resettlement from UN refugee camps, which is the British policy, but deeply wary of asylum.
Across the world, the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 is fraying under the pressures of war, climate change and the kind of barbarism which recently brought the veteran BBC reporter John Simpson to tears in Afghanistan. It’s getting harder to distinguish refugees fleeing the kind of persecution inflicted by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, which was the impetus for the convention, from economic migrants seeking a better life. How do you categorise someone who may have owned a business in Iraq, but fled after it was torched? Who do you believe when someone arrives with no papers? Do the distinctions even make any sense any more?
Governments from Poland to the US are under pressure to show their voters that they are choosing who comes, and integrating them without overwhelming local infrastructure. In the UK, the reluctance of successive governments to acknowledge the numbers arriving means that we have failed to provide the services needed. It has also left voters resentful of the resulting pressure on GPs and schools.
Right now, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are putting enormous strain on local authorities which are struggling to look after them properly. In June, Kent county council said that it was at breaking point, and issued legal proceedings against the Home Office. Many of these children have suffered extreme trauma and need extensive help. We should be ambitious for these children. But we also need to be honest about the budgets that are needed. Looking away — as politicians hope we will do — doesn’t help.
Smashing the people-smuggling rings supplying the boats that carry migrants across the Channel can only be done by a coalition wider than just France and Britain. This Sunday’s summit will bring European ministers to the table in an effort to trace the big money involved and find the culprits. But more will be needed. And Britain won’t be there.
Part of the answer for the UK must be speed up our own systems. Analysis of European asylum applications between 2009 and 2017 suggested that processing speed, and the risk of repatriation, significantly affect which kinds of migrants apply to which countries. Those from the most war-torn places, who can most easily substantiate their claims, favour countries which process claims fastest: more Syrians applied to Germany, and fewer to Sweden, for example, after Germany became more efficient. Equally, “economic” migrants seem more likely to try places with more bureaucracy.
This must, surely, be accompanied by an improved ability to deport — especially those with criminal records. Nothing else will quell public jitters or deter the people smugglers.
This weekend, those who voted for Brexit would be right to wonder what they voted for. It does us no credit to present Britain as a jingoistic, tone-deaf nation. The British people, and those who want to come here, deserve more. We used to be better than this.