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25 November 2021

Twenty-seven people have drowned in the English Channel. This is a predictable – and ongoing – tragedy

People will always want to come and live in a safe, free country such as Britain. Why do we respond to them with brutality?

By Stephen Bush

At least 27 people died on 24 November while attempting to cross the English Channel in search of a better life. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said it was the biggest single loss of life in the Channel since they began collecting data on crossings eight years ago. 

Additionally, this year is record-breaking for another reason: although many of the people living in refugee camps in France go on to seek asylum there, in 2021 more people have attempted the treacherous crossing to the UK than any other year since the IOM began collating figures. 

That’s down to a number of factors: one, of course, is that since Brexit, our legal frontier has moved. Our closed door to the free movement of people from the European Economic Area (EEA) has changed the legal picture in terms of the right to seek asylum here, and not in the EEA. This year’s tragedy in the Channel would, before Brexit, have been more likely to take place in the Mediterranean. So the biggest change is that we are now confronted with the tragic consequences up close, rather than passing them on to Europe’s frontiers. The UK is now at Europe’s frontiers. 

[See also: How much does the UK government really care about fixing the migrant crisis?]

The underlying cause of the migrant crisis is that this is a wonderful country. Yes, yes, there are all sorts of problems: shortcomings, inequalities and everyday tragedies. But the reason why this is a nation of immigrants and not of emigrants is that the people making that deadly journey believe, rightly, that they can have a better standard of living and a higher degree of personal freedom and safety than they could elsewhere. Across the world, other countries that are, similar to us, advanced and developed economies face equivalent pressures.

Video by Phil Clarke-Hill

As Nadhim Zahawi observed in his acceptance speech at last night’s Parliamentarian of the Year Awards (he won “minister to watch” for his role as minister in charge of the vaccine procurement and the roll-out process) this is a country where a 11-year-old boy from Iraq can arrive without a word of English and go on to become a cabinet minister.

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We can have any number of conversations and debates about whether the policies of this government make that more or less likely today, than it was in the 1970s. And of course, we’re not the only country where that’s true. But what unites all the countries with such opportunities – and it’s a beautiful and fragile category of countries – is that other people who were not born in a wonderful country are going to try to seek a better life in one. Inevitably, there will then be pressures on borders.

[See also: Leader: A fractured continent]

​​​​​​The government response – in the UK and in France – continues to be that the problem can be solved with brutality: whether in the hostile environment, which brings border enforcement into every nook and cranny of British public life, or in the shutting down of safe routes to the UK, or more French patrols on beaches and at sea.

But there is no amount of brutality at our border that will change the reality that, across the world, people want to come and live in places where they and their families can be safe, prosperous and free. What you can do is seek to increase the number of safe routes, both here and worldwide, and the number of places that people can live and be safe, prosperous and free.

Yesterday’s deaths were the inevitable consequence of the failure of politicians in Britain and France, and indeed across the world to recognise that truth. Without change, there will be many more: whether we push the death toll to another sea border where we don’t have to look at it, or if it continues to take place on our doorstep.

[See also: How Fortress Europe is becoming a reality]