Sometimes, a tragic image or story appears set to shift the course of history for the better. The haunting photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey, shocked Europe in September 2015. He was a toddler from Syria who perished alongside his mother and brother while trying to make the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. For a few weeks at least, it seemed as though public horror at how he died might propel the EU to take a more humanitarian approach on asylum. But in recent years, it has become more, not less, hardline, striking unsavoury deals with authoritarian regimes such as Turkey and failed states such as Libya to keep refugees out, regardless of the human rights abuses that are taking place in their detention centres.
The tragedy has spread to our own shores, as growing numbers of desperate people try to cross the English Channel, the busiest shipping route in the world, in little more than inflatable dinghies. Twenty-seven people drowned last Thursday, including a pregnant woman and three children. Their stories, like that of Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin, a 24-year-old Kurdish woman fleeing Iraq to join her fiance in the UK, are just starting to emerge. But there is little hope that they will engender a change in the political response.
What is happening in the Channel is a humanitarian crisis, as people mostly from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – the vast majority of whom will qualify for refuge – try to reach the UK. What it is not, however, is any sort of crisis for the UK asylum system, with the number of people seeking asylum in the UK significantly lower than at the peak in the early 2000s and far lower than in Germany or France. Neither is it at all a new phenomenon: people have always fled conflict and torture worldwide, sometimes driven by desperation to take appalling levels of risk, as Tim Adams reports from France today.
What is new is the increasing willingness of political leaders around the world, particularly in the UK, but also in countries such as Australia, to ignore their obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. What is first and foremost driving the British response is not reducing loss of life in the Channel, but reducing the numbers of people claiming asylum after arriving in the UK.
The best way to reduce the number of deaths as people fleeing conflict try to cross the Channel – or, indeed, the Mediterranean – is to open up safe passage to Europe, thus reducing demand for the people smuggling operations of criminal gangs. It may be hard for those with a European-centric view to believe, but the majority of refugees do not aspire to come to Europe – they want to stay close to their home in the hope they can one day return. Almost nine in 10 of the world’s refugees live in the lower-income countries that neighbour their home country. Allowing safe passage and a more generous system through which people can apply for resettlement would help erode the business model of the people smugglers.
But this conflicts with the government’s apparent desire to keep the numbers of people who are granted asylum in the UK unfeasibly low. Just over 13,000 refugees were granted protection in the last year: that is equivalent to just 20 people per parliamentary constituency. The UK could easily offer protection to more. But, as the Observer explained last week, because this does not fit with the political image they want to cultivate, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel are instead shifting the emphasis to deterring people from making the crossing by making the UK even more hostile to asylum seekers and by restructuring our asylum system in a way that breaks both the spirit and the letter of the 1951 convention.
The UK is already a very hostile place for people seeking refuge: they are not allowed to work, are often housed in dreadful conditions and are forced to subsist on less than £5.50 a day. The government has sought to make it even harder by opening up a two-tier system whereby the 1951 convention rights of asylum seekers arriving in the UK through means other than official resettlement programmes – an entirely legal action – would be further eroded. This runs entirely counter to one of the convention’s key principles, which is that people with a legitimate claim for asylum should have them heard fairly regardless of how they arrived in a country. The government’s other “deterrence” proposals currently being considered by parliament include other measures that break international refugee and maritime law, including the dangerous forcible return of boats to France and processing asylum seekers offshore.
The fight that Johnson picked with French president Emmanuel Macron perfectly encapsulates the dire state of the government’s response. France was wrong to exclude the UK from a key meeting on the Channel crisis. Yet by provoking Macron into this, by publishing an incendiary letter on social media that made a set of unreasonable demands on France, Johnson showed his true colours. He is a man who prioritises getting bombastic headlines in the sympathetic press over trying to work with our neighbours to avert further human tragedy.
Wealthy nations have an ethical obligation to people fleeing conflict and disaster that they are not collectively fulfilling. It is also in their self-interest: to simply bunker down, shut off borders and look the other way would be to dangerously undermine global security. Britain was one of the founding signatories of the 1951 refugee convention, which codified the international solidarity and cooperation without which a humanitarian approach to refugees is simply not possible. To our national shame, it is today one of the countries leading the charge to rip it up.