Saturday, November 27

Twenty-seven dead in the frozen canal. This should be the spur for change | Gaby hinsliff

It was the kind of boat, said a French politician, that explodes like a paddling pool.

It is not much more than a toy, the kind that many families will have bought this summer for their children to play on the beach. But this winter, flimsy inflatables may be all that stands between other people’s kids and a watery grave. Smugglers charge a small fortune for places in boats so dangerously overloaded that some begin to sink while still in sight of land, while others drift in the dark through one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Refugee charities had long warned of a tragedy that was about to happen, and it has. At least 27 human beings, including a pregnant woman and three children, lost their lives in the frozen sea of ​​November this week, in the worst incident of its kind since human traffickers began using this route three years ago.

Yet within hours, other ships were leaving, a reminder of how fiercely desire burns. After all, those on board don’t have much to lose. They may have already sold everything they owned or left their loved ones behind; many will have endured life-threatening journeys to reach the French coast, only to end up shivering in makeshift roadside camps, repeatedly moved by police officers confiscating their tents and sleeping bags to leave them at the mercy of the elements. Some young people carry the hopes of the families left behind, who have sacrificed everything to bring a child west. They won’t stop when the end is so tantalizingly in sight; not after everything they’ve been through, much less everything they may have fled. (Research suggests that ultimately two-thirds of those who cross the English Channel are considered genuine refugees, fleeing conflict and persecution.) As charities must be tired of saying, no one would do this if they had a better option. Now our job is to provide you with one.

This tragedy forces everyone in British politics once again to confront an issue that most find visibly uncomfortable. The government clearly does not know what to do with the flow of people through the English Channel, and the opposition often struggles with what to say about it; Labor members favor a much more open and generous offer to refugees, but their party’s most likely path to Downing Street runs through an electorate that instinctively does not. However, it is time for some homemade truths.

At the very least, this should spell an end to Home Office talks about “rolling back” ships by force when they enter British waters, which has raised widespread concerns about the risk of capsizing. The only way this week’s tragedy could have been more dire is if British border officials had been physically responsible for throwing people into the sea.

It should also surprise Britain and France to work more closely, although the omens are not good; Within hours, Boris Johnson was accusing the French of allegedly not doing enough to stop the crossing of small boats, while French politicians retorted that it was the supposed ease of finding work on the British black market that was incentivizing the people to keep trying. However, President Macron is pushing for an emergency meeting of European ministers, acknowledging that half of Europe is struggling with similar dilemmas. The next step is to recognize that law enforcement alone is not enough.

Britain used to scoff at Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall, not just because of its inhumanity, but because it sounded so silly and crude. Anyone can physically make it difficult to cross a border, but you cannot build a wall against hopes and dreams, or contain the universal desire for a better life behind a fence. But if Priti Patel could find a way to build a wall in the water, it would certainly do so tomorrow, and the demands for more beach patrols and more law enforcement are effectively the closest equivalent. A strategy based solely on keeping people out does nothing to address either the factors that drive people to leave – conflict, political repression and perhaps increasingly in future natural disasters fueled by the climate crisis – or the factors They are drawn here, with many migrants insisting that they do not want to stay in France and apply for asylum there because they have relatives in Britain or speak English. And that leaves a difficult conversation with the electorate.

British politicians have left behind the point of having the courage to challenge assumptions on this most electorally toxic issue. But if they were honest, they would admit that the “crisis” we have supposedly experienced pales in comparison to what Greece or Italy, whose coasts form Europe’s southernmost border, have experienced in recent years. Although asylum claims are at their highest annual level since 2004, that likely reflects a drop during the pandemic when travel was restricted and a rise after it. Far from being an irresistible magnet, in the year to March, Britain received the fourth highest number of asylum applications compared to EU countries and only seventeenth highest when measured per head of population. Yet much of Britain still behaves – and votes – as if overwhelmed by people who, in fact, mostly go elsewhere. Five years ago, abandonment activists exploited these exaggerated fears to help secure a Brexit that, if anything, has made illegal movements more difficult to control, ending a long-standing right to return asylum seekers who They arrive from another EU country and poisoning relations between Britain and France. goodwill was needed. The brashness of the Brexiters now in government is impressive, but saying so doesn’t help prevent people from drowning in the sea.

For that, we need safe and legal routes for asylum seekers, agreed in concert with other countries to ensure that landforms don’t leave some struggling to absorb an unfair share. That solidarity is even more critical now that Russia, always alert to opportunities to destabilize and divide Europe, is suspected of raising tensions by funneling people through Belarus to Poland and perhaps their neighbors beyond. Tackling such complex and intractable issues requires political maturity that is currently lacking and a willingness to acknowledge tragedy as the spur for change.

Too often migrants are portrayed as a threat to Britain, but events like this should remind us that the real danger is for those crossing the English Channel. In death we can see them for who they are; victims of both the regimes from which they escape and the traffickers who exploit their despair, but sometimes also of instinctive hostility in the countries they yearn to reach. In the unsettling immediate aftermath of tragedy, that hostility can sometimes be replaced, if only briefly, by pangs of conscience and compassion. Blink now and we will lose the moment.

Gaby Hinsliff is a columnist for The Guardian

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