Migrant crisis: Refugee and human rights charities call for 'safe' routes to UK after Channel drowning tragedy

It was a horrific yet inevitable tragedy that has reignited debate over how to prevent the deaths of those seeking respite and refuge on these shores.

If the desperation of the 27 people drowned – among them three children and a pregnant woman – as they attempted to cross the English Channel was not already evident, it was underscored yesterday after a group of people huddled aboard a lifeboat to make the same treacherous journey.

In the days, weeks and months ahead, others will risk their lives. But in the wake of what the International Organisation for Migration described as the single biggest loss of life in the Channel since it began keeping records, calls are growing for reform that extends far beyond increased securitisation of the waters between Britain and France.

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The questions around what to fix, and how to fix it, are vexed and contested, but in the eyes of charities and organisations with a keen interest in refugees and migration, there are some obvious steps that need to be taken.

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“The only reason why there are people who are vulnerable to smugglers, encouraging and enabling them to make extremely dangerous journeys, is because the people concerned are in situations that are so desperate, they have no other option available to them,” Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, told The Scotsman.

The charity has long called for provision of safe and legal routes for people seeking asylum. It refers not to any one passage, but in essence, the formal sanction by authorities here of journeys to the UK so as to minimise the risks of exploitation and abuse.

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“Governments – ours, but not just ours – keep insisting on refusing to provide any safe passage for these people and focus their efforts on shutting down smuggling activities,” reasoned Mr Valdez-Symonds.

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French police look out over a beach near Wimereux in France believed to have been from where those travelling aboard the boat that capsized set off from. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

“All that has happened is that the routes change from time to time, and the smugglers’ business continues to thrive, as people find themselves on dangerous journeys.”

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Amnesty is also calling on the UK Government to make good on its pledge to introduce the Afghanistan Citizenship Resettlement Scheme.

Given the array of nationalities among those who make the sea crossings, it is a mechanism with limited impact. Even so, the charity says the failure to open the scheme is demonstrative of the government’s “fundamental failure to provide safe routes”.

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There are other, broader responses to the tragedy being advocated.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a charity that campaigns for fairer, evidence-based immigration legislation, said the preventable yet “predictable” loss of life in the Channel underscored the need for a “humane, realistic, compassionate approach to refugee protection”.

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Zoe Gardner, the charity’s policy and advocacy manager, said the UK Government’s controversial Nationality and Borders Bill merely “entrenches a failed model discredited by the evidence”.

She called on MPs to support various amendments to the legislation, which would remove clauses that grant lesser rights to recognised refugees who arrive spontaneously, and remove provisions for the offshore detention of asylum seekers.

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It too is calling for the immediate implementation of the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, along with family reunion routes, and a humanitarian visa scheme so that people seeking safety in the UK can do so without risking their lives.

Ms Gardner explained: “The logic of the Nationality and Borders Bill is that by disregarding our international obligations to refugees, we can dissuade people from coming. This approach has never worked in the past.

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“Thousands of people have drowned in the Mediterranean, and those who arrive on Greek shores are locked up in island camps. The crossings have not ended. Likewise, Australia’s policy of sending people to offshore detention camps did not stop the boats.

“Australia, Greece and all the countries the bill’s brutal policies seek to emulate still receive asylum seekers. The UK will always receive asylum seekers too and must be proud to do so.”

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Sabir Zazai, CEO of the Scottish Refugee Council, said the introduction of a straightforward humanitarian visa scheme would undermine those seeking to exploit refugees.

He said: “Borders are costly and deadly, but saving lives costs nothing.

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"Since 2014 the UK has spent £220 million on securitisation of its border. A simple humanitarian visa scheme would cost nothing, save lives and would take the market away from smugglers.”

Others, Mr Valdez-Symnonds included, stress the need for closer co-operation between Britain and France, instead of “finger pointing”.

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For the moment, all eyes are on the Channel, amid talk of increased patrols and tougher tactics to push boats back.

Immigration minister Kevin Foster declined to rule out the use of such ‘pushback’ measures yesterday, insisting “any maritime tactics would be deployed appropriately”.

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But Channel Rescue, a human rights monitoring organisation set up in response to government calls for increased securitisation of the crossing, has announced it is seeking a judicial review of the Home Office’s mooted approach, warning the plans are not just morally wrong, but unlawful.

It comes after Shona Robison, the Cabinet secretary for social justice, said Scotland had “answered the call” to provide placements for child refugees, and warned proposed changes to the scheme by the UK Government would “do little to support the welfare and wellbeing” of vulnerable youngsters.

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Home secretary Priti Patel sparked controversy earlier this week when she claimed Scottish councils and the Scottish Government were not "pulling their weight" to accommodate asylum seekers.

Responding to an urgent question from Scottish Labour’s Paul Sweeney about Ms Patel’s remarks, Ms Robison said that under a rota system, 19 placements for children had been secured since October, in addition to 22 children who arrived under the national transfer scheme between January and September.

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She said it was vital the Home Office allowed the Scottish rota to continue in a “managed and proper way”, and cautioned that proposed changes could result in “children being passed from one local authority to another around Scotland”.

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