The Observer view on the government’s shameful actions in the Channel | Observer editorial | Opinion

Angelena Iglesia

‘He wanted to have a better life from the horror we used to live in.” These are the words of Al-Fatih Hamdallah, the older brother of Abdulfatah Hamdallah, the 22-year-old Sudanese man who drowned trying to cross the Channel in a tiny inflatable dinghy with shovels for oars. Hamdallah had […]

‘He wanted to have a better life from the horror we used to live in.” These are the words of Al-Fatih Hamdallah, the older brother of Abdulfatah Hamdallah, the 22-year-old Sudanese man who drowned trying to cross the Channel in a tiny inflatable dinghy with shovels for oars. Hamdallah had left West Kordofan, a Sudanese province bordering war-torn Darfur, in 2014; he made his way to Europe via Libya and the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Italy.

These are not journeys somebody would make if they felt they had another choice. Behind every man, woman and child who risks their life trying to make the treacherous journey to western Europe from Africa and the Middle East lies an individual story, but the common thread is a desperate attempt to flee conflict and extreme poverty. That parents are willing to jeopardise their children’s lives, not just their own, that a man who could not swim was prepared to risk crossing the world’s busiest shipping lane in a dinghy that would have been capsized by a slow-moving ferry, should speak volumes about what they are trying to escape.

But because it suits their political agenda, the prime minister and the home secretary, Priti Patel, want us to see a big number – the 5,000 who have made the crossing across the Channel so far this year – not individual people; they want this to be a story of looming threats, not desperate plights; they want us to feel fear and loathing, not compassion. And so they deliberately muddy the water between migration and asylum: dubbing those seeking refugee status “illegal immigrants”; appointing a “clandestine Channel threat commander” to head off this apparently grave risk to British security; threatening to send in navy patrols despite experts warning that this will lead to greater loss of life; planning to introduce asylum laws, not with the intention of honouring Britain’s legal and moral obligations to the international community, but designed to “send the left into meltdown”.

Boris Johnson and Patel sound this populist dogwhistle to distract from the government incompetence that is filling the news agenda. That number of 5,000, an increasing proportion of whom are unaccompanied children, is dwarfed by the tens of thousands who cross the Mediterranean to Italy, Spain and Greece each year. The UK had only 36,000 asylum applications last year, less than a quarter of Germany and France. More than 90% of asylum claims from Sudan, where Hamdallah was from, were granted last year.

The vast majority of displaced men, women and children never try to make it to Europe but instead live as refugees in the regions they are from, in the hope they can one day return home: almost nine in 10 are hosted by low-income countries, some of which, such as Uganda, take a far more progressive approach to asylum seekers than countries such as the UK, for example, allowing them to work and pay taxes. Here, skilled asylum seekers who have escaped persecution and torture are forced to subsist on handouts of less than £5.50 a day for years at a time while their applications are processed, often in damp and vermin-infested accommodation where strangers are forced to share rooms even during a pandemic.

Perimeters in Calais, patrols in the Mediterranean, shameful pacts with failed states and dictators such as in Libya and Sudan to try to keep desperate people out: these have been the defining features of the British and European approach in recent years, to try to force the problem away no matter the moral cost. But as humanitarian organisations have long warned, deterrence does not work; desperate people will always attempt to cross seas, no matter how dangerous the journey. The only impact is that more lives are lost in the act of trying and people smugglers make more profit out of their exploitation.

Meanwhile, Patel has suspended all legal resettlement routes for refugees from countries such as Syria in recent months, using the pandemic as an excuse (it has not stopped the British government trying to return asylum seekers to other countries). She has ignored offers from local authorities to house thousands of child refugees. In May, the Observer revealed that the government planned to push for the end of the provision allowing child refugees to be reunited with family in the UK in Brexit negotiations. And the government’s reforms to international aid – reshaping Britain’s aid budget so it works more to the UK’s immediate commercial and trade interests – will only have the effect of increasing conflict, poverty and instability in other parts of the world, boosting rather than reducing the long-term flow of people who seek refuge on Europe’s shores.

Asylum seekers who reach the UK are human beings who have gone through unimaginable suffering to get here. They deserve to be treated with compassion and dignity. We can express horror about the atrocities playing out in countries such as Syria, Libya and Sudan all we like but, while we have a government that treats asylum seekers as political pawns, it is not even that we are looking the other way. We are complicit in their suffering.

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