Small boats crossing the Channel – an avoidable tragedy

Heba Yousef Press Officer with MSF UK 17th January 2023
Refugees crossing the sea on a small boat

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016.

When four people died in the English Channel last month, MSF was outspoken in its condemnation of Government policy. Heba Yousef urges the media to do more to hold the Government to account.

The horrific loss of life of people crossing the Channel in small boats in December showed all too clearly the human cost of an approach built on ‘deterrence.’ This approach fails to understand that increasingly punitive measures will not stop people trying to seek safety but will simply push them into more dangerous and desperate journeys.

Just the day before this tragedy, the Prime Minister had announced plans to criminalise and punish people seeking safety, pledging to “introduce new legislation to make unambiguously clear that if you enter the United Kingdom illegally you should not be able to remain here.”

A deterrent approach will not stop small boats crossing the Channel

The Prime Minister seemed ignorant of the evidence – including the analysis of his own Home Office –  that a deterrent approach, combined with a lack of safe routes, only puts people in more danger and causes more suffering. 

MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) teams around the world – from the Central Mediterranean and Aegean seas to Nauru island in the Pacific – have seen this borne out in their work.

So, what has led to the UK adopting an approach that is so dehumanising and polarising? How do people fleeing conflict, persecution, hardship, or climate change become so politicised and villainised?

A disturbing lack of empathy for refugees

Clearly, both the current Prime Minister and Home Secretary and their predecessors carry the responsibility for this. The Government has demonstrated a disturbing lack of empathy and compassion by:

  • passing legislation to allow for offshoring people to Rwanda 
  • dangerous ‘pushbacks’ at sea 
  • the creation of two tiers of refugee status
  • introducing age assessment methodology that includes X-ray scanning of children 

But the Government’s approach has been characterised not only by cruelty, but also a striking level of dishonesty, obfuscation, and discrimination according to race. There have been many efforts to push back on this, but all too often these are drowned out in a public conversation which has been poisoned by ministers who seem openly hostile to public accountability.

The media must do more to hold the Government to account

In the face of this approach, anyone seeking to hold the government accountable – whether that is media, Parliamentarians or NGOs – needs to be clear that what they say cannot be taken at face value. Their claims therefore must be scrutinised, questioned and where necessary debunked at every opportunity.

On multiple occasions, ministers have been allowed to insist that people arriving in the UK must use “safe and legal routes” without being challenged on the fact that those routes barely exist. 

There is a fundamental right to claim asylum

Many sections of the media have been too willing to follow the government’s emphasis on incriminating certain groups of people, while wilfully misrepresenting the fundamental right, enshrined in law, that every single person must be able to claim asylum and have their case heard.

Meanwhile, the Labour opposition, while being critical of Government failures on the asylum system and the Rwanda scheme, has too often bought into their wider narrative that this is a problem that can be ‘solved’ through a combination of deterrence and enforcement.

Safe and legal routes barely exist

The reality is that a lack of safe routes leaves desperate people with no option other than to risk their life, crossing the Channel, in small boats. The lack of these safe and legal routes also heightens the risk of pushing people into the hands of the very smugglers which the Government purports to be targeting.

MSF teams have seen the harm caused around the world by the very approaches to migration which the Government has said it wants to emulate. 

The withdrawal of state-led search and rescue in the Mediterranean has left thousands to drown – the efforts of NGOs may help, but they cannot plug the gap. The use of dangerous ‘pushbacks’ of people at the borders of Europe – from Greece to Lithuania to the Balkans – has resulted in terrible suffering and death. Yet despite this astonishing cruelty, people still seek safety, as they have no other choice.

How this issue is reported and debated affects people’s lives

Unless these basic realities are acknowledged, and the Government is consistently challenged on them, the public conversation around refugees and migration continues to be, not only meaningless, but harmful. 

The ways in which migration is reported are vital to how valued and safe people are when coming to the UK.

How we tell the story is important. The reality of people’s lived experience and dignity should be placed at the forefront of any narrative where lives and well-being are at risk.

Heba Yousef is a press officer with MSF UK

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