A pan-European solution is needed to prevent Channel deaths
Last week’s tragic loss of 27 lives in the Channel was foreseeable and indeed foreseen. They weren’t the first people to have died crossing the Channel, but our shared responsibility now is to do all we can to ensure they will be the last.
That can only be achieved by working seriously with the French government and our other partners in the EU. Our joint objectives must be to crack down on the criminal gangs of people smugglers who profit from human misery and endanger lives but also to find Europe-wide solutions that are fair, equitable and humane and to recognise our role and responsibilities within that.
It is worth remembering that most refugees do not claim asylum in the UK. In 2020, when compared with our neighbouring EU countries, the UK ranked 14th in terms of the number of asylum applications per capita. France, for instance, already receives many more asylum claims than we do and we must be sensitive to that fact when working with the French authorities to reach a fair solution.
Unless we provide safe routes, we are complicit with the traffickers
It is important to be honest about who is seeking to come to the UK and why. Contrary to the Home Secretary’s claim that 70 per cent of those arriving in the UK are economic migrants, between January 2020 and June 2021 the Home Office recognised 61 per cent of asylum claims made by those crossing the Channel in dangerous boats from the top ten countries of origin. At appeal stage that figure rose to over 70 per cent. Many of those who try to reach the UK do so because they have family here or because they speak English or have other links to the UK.
So, the context is clear. Many more refugees are welcomed by our European partners than by us, and the overwhelming majority who do make it to the UK have fled torture, persecution and worse.
The government’s continued use of the word “illegal” to describe refugees and their journeys is, I’m afraid, a cynical distortion of the truth. I have discussed this point with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who are emphatic that under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which we helped to draft, asylum seekers are not obliged to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach.
The reason why we’re seeing more small boats crossing the Channel – so-called by the government “illegal crossings” is because there are no official resettlement routes available from Europe. In any case, as boat crossings have increased, the numbers coming on the back of lorries – as well as overall numbers – have fallen.
The Syrian resettlement scheme has been closed, the Dubs scheme scrapped, the UK has withdrawn from the Dublin III scheme on family returns and we have taken disappointingly few from Afghanistan. In response to the demand that refugees stranded in camps or sleeping rough in Europe use only “legal routes”, the answer is there are no legal routes.
The closure of these safe routes has forced even more people, including children and families, to risk their lives to reach sanctuary in the UK, a situation which fuels the activities of people traffickers. Unless we provide safe routes, we are complicit with the traffickers.
The only sensible way forward is for all European countries, EU and non-EU, to agree a common policy on asylum seekers. The recent meeting with the interior ministers of France, Belgium, Germany and Holland, from which we were regrettably excluded, represents a step towards a Europe-wide policy which is both focussed on security issues, but also must extend to humanitarian issues.
For our part, we must commit to expanding safe routes, especially for children and those with family in the UK, in accordance with the proud humanitarian traditions of the UK and be a willing and constructive partner in discussions leading to a Europe-wide asylum and refugee policy.
Lord Dubs is a Labour peer.
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