Leaders bicker while refugees risk their lives
It is a fair bet that Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron will be scrubbing each other off their respective Christmas card lists this year. With both in full-on clash mode, every other day brings yet another Punch and Judy-style spat. The Entente Cordiale has been peppered with insults and accusations hurled across the English Channel.
Few issues have come even close to resolution. French fishermen have blockaded ports, once more demanding post-Brexit fishing rights. France is insisting on retaining the Northern Ireland Protocol as is. Then there is the trilateral Australia-US-UK defense pact, known as AUKUS, which did not include France and ripped up a major French submarine sale to Australia worth $63 billion.
Yet, in the long term, perhaps the most potent spat of all is over illegal channel crossings. This hits hard with domestic voters on both sides of the Channel, where hard-line anti-immigration policies are de rigueur.
The deaths last week of 27 people, including three children, who drowned when their inflatable dinghy sank off Calais, caused widespread shock. The death toll is the highest in a single incident involving migrants and refugees since the latest wave of attempted Channel crossing began two years ago.
More than 25,000 people have made the journey so far this year. Many, as in the case of the Nov. 24 tragedy, have been on overcrowded dinghies operated by criminal gangs of people smugglers. Iran, Eritrea, Iraq, Syria and Albania are the leading countries of origin.
No good spat is real nowadays unless it is on social media. Johnson’s decision to tweet a letter to Macron outlining British demands on stopping the crossings riled the French. Within hours, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel was disinvited to a summit in France on the crossings, which, while making a point, hardly pushed forward efforts to find a solution to the refugee issue. Then again, nobody in power in this crisis has ever put the refugees first.
For the British government, Macron is playing to his electorate ahead of the presidential polls in April next year. For the French, Johnson is seen as an untrustworthy populist who lied to “get Brexit done.” Alongside him, the French view Patel as out of her depth and ideologically hostile to any immigration.
All sorts of proposals have been mooted, including joint Anglo-French operations on land and sea. The UK government is refusing to sanction proposals that would see refugees entering the country and is trying to reduce the pull factor. France wants the British to send immigration officers to France to examine demands for asylum in the UK.
The London government even wants to be able to turn boats back and return the “migrants” to their country of departure. The French interpretation of maritime law is that a boat can only be assisted if it requests help. The British view is that boats can be turned back. That is why France has only been able or willing to intercept half the attempted crossings this year.
None of these proposals offer any solutions to refugees. Human rights and refugee campaigners point out that the refugees have no choice but to risk these dangerous routes. The closure of safe routes to claim asylum mean that many more will risk the watery grave of the English Channel, as they have also done in the Mediterranean.
This year happens to be the 70th anniversary of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. It is not a happy one, as the UK is one of the many richer states that are busily upending the treaty, which stipulates that the status of an asylum claim should not be dependent on how the person enters the country. Britain is in the process of passing legislation that will create a two-tier system, where those who enter legally will be granted permanent leave to remain while those who enter via illegal routes will encounter massive obstacles.
Quite how this is applied in practice is not clear. Most asylum seekers flee their countries, often in fear for their lives, without the time to make a lengthy application for asylum. This plan will punish refugees simply for the manner in which they flee.
For many on the far right in Britain, it seems the dream of Brexit was one that meant the UK would reject almost all asylum seekers, as well as immigrants. The home secretary rails against the EU over its open borders as if it is the bloc’s job to prevent refugees turning up at the Channel.
The reality is that the UK has closed down nearly all legitimate entry points and pathways for refugees. The scheme for accepting Syrian refugees has been stopped. Not one Yemeni has entered the UK via a legitimate route over the past 18 months. One of the reasons boat numbers have escalated is that the Channel Tunnel entrance is so well fortified with walls and alarms. Britain used to have a proud record of welcoming refugees, but sadly no longer.
The winners out of this are the criminal networks, for whom such trips are highly profitable. Britain and France are complicit with these people smugglers. Brutal regimes, such as those in Syria or Belarus, also think they are winners.
The losers are the refugees. As leaders pontificate and bicker, refugees freeze and starve at various border points, in this case in northern France.
Cooperation is vital. Everyone acknowledges that. The volume and the hate need to be dialed down. Yet governments are just not doing so. Too many look over their shoulders at the next headline, the next opinion poll or the next social media pile-on. British and French leaders have no excuse.
The closure of safe routes to claim asylum mean that many more will risk the watery grave of the English Channel.
The externalization of the challenge is rampant. This is when states take action beyond their own territories to prevent the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers. Australia was perhaps the country to kick-start this; an example the British Conservative government is keen to follow. It paid £54 million ($72 million) to France in June to fund additional border patrols. Further afield, the EU pays Turkey to hold back refugees and is busy trying to prevent boat-loads of refugees and migrants crossing from North Africa.
But mutual assistance simply to deny sanctuary to those in desperate need is not the solution and is blatantly cruel. Refugee protection has deteriorated significantly over the past few years. The bottom line is that Western, developed and wealthy countries are not sharing responsibility for refugees, but shifting extra burdens on to poorer nations.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech