Migrant crisis: Imagine a world where human beings weren’t viewed as infiltrators - Dani Garavelli

The day four more asylum seekers drowned in the Channel, I had watched ice pancakes under the half-frozen waterfall at Glasgow’s Linn Park.
An inflatable craft carrying migrants crosses the shipping lane in the English Channel.An inflatable craft carrying migrants crosses the shipping lane in the English Channel.
An inflatable craft carrying migrants crosses the shipping lane in the English Channel.

It was bitterly cold - -10 in some places; too cold to stand in one spot for long. But, for a brief moment, I couldn’t take my eyes off these beautiful, frost-spangled circles twisting and turning under forces beyond their control.

I came home, read the news, and thought about the voyagers pitched into the sea off the Kent coast. According to Talk Radio host Julia Hartley-Brewer, they were to blame for boarding unseaworthy vessels. But they were no more in command of their destiny than the ice floes, their lives shaped by conflict, colonialism, economic inequality; and ended by cash-greedy traffickers and vote-greedy politicians.

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Those politicians uttered weasel words last week, as they have been doing for more than a decade. “These are the days we dread,” said Home Secretary Suella Braverman, though her government’s policies make them inevitable. Her hollow expression of sympathy came just over a year after 32 migrants lost their lives while French and British authorities argued over whose responsibility it was to rescue them. In the interim, a river of crocodile tears may have been shed, but the anti-migrant rhetoric is still being ramped up.

In the service of its Take Back Control agenda, the Conservative government peddles two flawed and contradictory narratives. The first is that most asylum seekers making their way into the UK are illegal scroungers attempting to exploit our over-generous benefits system. The second is that their deaths are the responsibility of criminal gangs attempting to exploit their desperation. Of course, according to the first narrative, there is no desperation to exploit; but let's not quibble over semantics.

The notion of asylum seekers as illegal fakers is deeply embedded though repeatedly disproven. “I don’t know how many times I have to say this, but: ‘You’re in France. You’re not in war-torn Syria. You are not in Ukraine’,” said Hartley-Brewer with all the self-satisfaction of a woman who is going home to a warm house and a fully-stocked fridge, rather than a sodden tent with no sanitation or drinking water.

Yet - for all Braverman's talk of an "invasion" - the UK last year received around nine asylum claims for every 10,000 people compared to 14 across the EU27. Although the total number of applications - 48,540 - was the highest for almost two decades, it was still around half the level of the previous peak in 2002 - 84,132. We also know a high proportion of those who make it to the UK are accepted as refugees. Last year, the proportion of applicants receiving a grant of asylum, humanitarian protection or alternative forms of leave, at initial decision was 72%. And almost half of unsuccessful applications are granted on appeal.

The rise in Albanian migrants - 13,000 this year, according to Rishi Sunak, a third of them in small boats - is providing the government with a new scapegoat, and a justification for its hostility. The Albanians are said to be linked to criminality, although, again, many are trying to escape dire circumstances at home, and 51% go on to be granted asylum.

To anyone with empathy and intelligence, the way to prevent future drownings is clear: end the demand for trafficking by opening up more safe routes. Blessed with neither, the government has restricted rights to refugee family reunion through its Nationality and Borders Act while continuing to indulge its fixation with patrolling its borders and turning back boats.

Sunak’s new five-point plan - announced shortly before the latest drownings - is almost entirely punitive, with each measure demonstrating afresh that asylum seekers are treated as “illegal until proven legal,” rather than as traumatised people running for their lives.

There is a big focus on Albanians. New measures include an increase in the number of asylum caseworkers handling their claims and a raising of the threshold for "modern slavery". The government will also move away from housing migrants in hotels, and set up a “permanent unified small boats operational command” bringing together “military and civilian capability and the National Crime Agency”.

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The question of accommodation raises a thorny issue: the disparity in the way various nationalities are perceived. Reading about the tiny boats crossing the Channel brings to mind another cohort housed in great ships in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Not that it has been easy for Ukrainians to settle here. The UK government’s response was slow, its efforts surpassed by its Scottish counterpart. And, even in Scotland, Ukrainians have been beset by a shortage of social housing. Moreover, no-one would begrudge them a safe haven after everything they have endured. Yet, a whiff of racism persists; a sense that there will always be “good migrants” and “bad migrants”, and that some of this will down to the colour of their skin.

So far, Labour leader Keir Starmer has done little to oppose the demonising of those trying to reach our shores. He took an embarrassingly long time to pledge his party would scrap the Rwanda plan. Then, just days before the latest drownings, he suggested some asylum seekers should be tagged, a view that made you wonder if he’d forgotten which side of the House he was standing on.

The tragedy is, it doesn’t need to be like this. Imagine a world where human beings weren’t viewed as infiltrators, but as assets, contributors; a ready-made workforce with skills and qualities that could transform our diminished country. A world in which not only did no-one drown, but no-one languished for years in substandard accommodation waiting for officials to deem them worthy. For that, we’d need not only a different government, but one led by a man or woman with humanity, vision and faith in their own ability to deliver voters from the Tories’ sea of toxic rhetoric and lead them onto higher ground.



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