In Years and Years, Russell T Davies’ 2019 drama about a family contending with the increasingly dystopian world of the 2020s, one of the lead characters, Daniel, falls in love with a refugee. His lover is deported back to his home country, where he was beaten for being gay and where homosexuality is now illegal, so claims asylum in Spain. But ultimately he’s threatened with deportation there, too.
And so, Daniel finds himself trying to get the man he loves back into Britain through unofficial means – and from a beach in northern France, the two of them climb into a dangerously overcrowded dinghy.
The thing that makes this storyline so powerful – the reason I was confused when the screen started to blur, so caught up in the drama I hadn’t even noticed I was crying – is that it leads you, step by step, to the point at which you can picture the people you love in that boat. We are used, when talking about refugees and migrants and asylum seekers, to imagining other people at the heart of the story. We may, if we aren’t the kind of awful, hard-right rabble-rousers who spend their days talking about a few dinghies full of terrified refugees as if they’re an invading foreign army, feel sympathy for the people who find themselves in such desperate straits that they’re willing to risk their lives just to get to a drab, rainy island in the North Atlantic. But we still, instinctively, imagine them as Them. By using something fundamental as the urge to protect and stay close to the people we love, Davies leads us to consider the possibility that the people in those boats could actually be Us.
There are many things that could be said about the ongoing tragedy unfolding in the English Channel, which this week led at least 27 people to drown after their inflatable dinghy sank on the crossing from France. We could talk about the hypocrisy of the newspapers that once compared migrants to cockroaches, or the Home Secretary – whose policies have contributed to this disaster – now claiming to mourn for the dead. Or we could talk about the appalling approach of the Daily Mail, which even after this tragedy is claiming that four-star hotels, free mobile phones and spending money from the British state await those who successfully make the crossing.
We could talk about Britain’s imperial history, which means that relatively few parts of the world have no connection with this island, and discuss how the wealth we looted from around the globe in the 19th and 20th centuries might be said to impose a responsibility to help people from unstable regions in the 21st. We could talk about the fact that, when people are desperate to come to Britain because they have family here and believe they will be greeted here more warmly than in any of our neighbouring countries, it is insanity that we have decided this is somehow a problem.
We could discuss the way that, despite this tabloid narrative, Britain actually takes in relatively few refugees compared to many, much poorer countries. And that a system which assumes people fleeing conflict or disaster should stop in the nearest safe country may sometimes mean spreading rather than solving a crisis, and is unlikely to prove sustainable. We could talk about how Brexit has made this whole situation harder to fix, by removing Britain from an existing rules-based system and by souring relations with France.
But none of these things seem as important as the reality that the people crowding into those boats every day are people. So often the narrative treats them as a problem to be solved, or a symptom of distant crises in which we may or may not have a hand, or as statistics with a few stock demographic labels (“working-aged males”; “little girl”; “pregnant woman”) attached. But every one of those people who died this week had a mother and a father who loved them or was proud of them or disappointed in them or who treated them badly. They had friends and acquaintances, with whom they went out, stayed in, argued, secretly crushed on. They still thought about that embarrassing thing that they said ten years ago, and wondered why embarrassment persisted so long. They supported sports teams, had favourite films or TV shows, loved and were loved, worried about their health.
And all they wanted was to build a life, in a safe place where they could make a home and follow their dreams. Priti Patel has claimed, without evidence, that most of those trying to make the crisis are economic migrants. Even if they are, who cares?
There’s one other thing to say about the crisis in the Channel: it is extremely likely it’s going to get worse. Climate change is making previously fertile areas unliveable, even before significant sea level rises. By the middle of the century, 216 million people – roughly half the population of the European Union – could be forced by climate change to leave their homes.
They probably won’t include us. We’ll probably be fine, right here. But only because we’re lucky.