By Alice Webster
On Wednesday the 24th of November the world became witness to an entirely preventable tragedy in which it saw the largest loss of life in the Channel since records began in 2014. Those that passed away included a pregnant woman, as well as a young girl, who were attempting to reach the safety of the English coast in a boat described by the French interior minister as a ‘pool you’d blow up in your garden’. The 27 migrants who have lost their lives are just a fraction of those who have fallen victim to the recent crackdown on anti-migration legislation on behalf of the British government.
Much of the online discourse that I have encountered frames this event as a political issue. Which it is, of course. However, a crisis that involves such mass suffering and loss of life demands more compassion than this. Parliamentary dialogue has been overly polluted with political rhetoric to the point at which the general public has lost sight of the fact that these are real lives being discussed. The migrant crisis is a humanitarian issue at its core and should be treated as such.
Many refugees are fleeing from countries wherein they regularly face human rights violations and violent conflicts. Many of the migrants who lost their lives on the 24th, for example, were believed to have been predominantly Kurdish, from Iraq and Iran - both of which are rife with conflict and promote extrajudicial killings and violent persecution. In the face of such hardships, families and individuals are forced to flee by any means possible.
Most will travel thousands of miles across Europe, often on foot and sometimes facing extreme violence - as has been recently seen at the Belarusian border. Many will lose their lives along the way. In an unspeakably cruel end to such a journey, those that are successful in reaching British borders are then met with a barrage of military and legislative obstructions.
The desperation felt by refugees is heartbreakingly articulated by a man called Shivan who recently told reporters in Calais: “We just want to live. We’re not scared to cross. It’s better to cross”.
These are the voices that we need to hear. The migrant crisis needs to be humanised not politicised.
However, the British government is making this very difficult and proving stubborn in its hostile stance towards ‘illegal’ immigrants - refusing to address the issue with the sensitivity and empathy that it deserves. Boris Johnson claims to be “shocked and appalled” by the recent loss of life despite his insistent refusal to open up safe passage across the channel for migrants.
This hypocrisy is further underscored by Priti Patel’s passing of the Nationality and Borders Bill. This ruthless piece of legislation, among other things, will criminalise any migrant that attempts to cross the channel. In order to enforce this, the British government has recently pledged to give France €62.7m towards the military prevention of channel crossings and will begin to turn back some of the boats that evade these efforts.
As if it couldn’t get any worse, Tory MPs have called for a suspension of the Human Rights Act in an effort to enforce anti-migration legislation.
Migrants are not seen, by our government, as people. They are reduced to a criminal class; a hoard of pests to be fended off by violent means and Johnson’s phony attempt at a public display of sympathy does little to disguise this despicable violation of human rights.
But the heartless way in which this crisis is being handled does not stop at domestic legislation. Johnson and Patel also appear to be using the migrant crisis as a proxy with which to hash out long-standing grievances with France. The British government seems to be playing some sort of political blame game, despite being urged by Macron to refrain from using this issue for “political purposes”. Johnson used his statement about the deaths of 27 people to criticise the French instead of taking any personal accountability. It’s just another example of the British government “choosing to play politics with people’s lives”. And, at this point, are we really surprised?
The government’s handling of this situation has been nothing short of shameful. It’s astute moral bankruptcy has been exposed. Not only have they politicised an issue that is inherently human, but they have indirectly ensured further casualties through their counter-productive and harmful ‘solutions’ to channel crossings.
Admittedly, there is no simple fix-all to a complex situation such as this one. However, immediate action needs to take place in order to avoid further tragedy. We need to see safe passages for asylum seekers opened as well as a change in the rhetoric used around the migrant crisis. The way in which people’s lives are considered and spoken about within Parliament needs to change, before this country shrivels into one of abject immorality.