By Ellie Williamson
In September 2020, the Financial Times published a disturbing article that exposed the cruel reality of our government’s attitude towards refugees. According to an insider close to the Home Office, cabinet ministers were putting forward absurdly inhumane suggestions as to ways in which the number of people seeking asylum in the UK could be curbed.
In recent years, the number of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel has dramatically risen.
2021 has seen over 14,000 people complete this journey to date (already far eclipsing the 8,461 people who arrived in 2020), but it is clear that government ministers are determined to go to any lengths to put a stop to this.
The FT reported that one of these lengths discussed by the government was to install a giant wave machine into the Channel. The idea behind this being that man-made waves would make the crossing even more dangerous than it already is, thus deterring more people from attempting to make the journey. Although this sounds like some sort of a sick joke, it is just one of the shocking policy suggestions that was genuinely contemplated by the people who run our country. Another suggestion included the possibility of linking small boats together to create a physical barrier that would block parts of the Channel. Another was to send all potential asylum seekers to a processing centre on Ascension Island, some 1,000 miles off the coast of West Africa.
These proposals seem to provide a stark and altogether horrifying insight into the manner with which our government treats refugees and asylum seekers. Not only do those in power lack any sort of compassion or general human decency, but they are entirely dehumanising refugees. They are regarded as annoying pests that are swarming our country; pests that need to be dealt with, and gotten rid of, swiftly. It is a despicable reflection of the hostility that our Home Office has repeatedly shown to migrants and refugees over the years, and, as Caroline Lucas writes, a despicable reflection of how “morally bankrupt” our asylum system is.
Currently, there are over 79.5 million displaced peoples across the globe. That equates to around 1 in every 103 people worldwide. 26 million of these people are refugees, meaning that they have had to cross borders and leave their home countries in order to escape war, danger and persecution. They have literally had to flee for their lives, leaving behind unimaginable conflicts in order to find somewhere safe to live. Yet the government and many media outlets continue to tarnish them as problematic and burdensome. For simply trying to survive.
Home Secretary Priti Patel is currently attempting to get a new Nationality and Borders Bill passed through Parliament, which will criminalise anybody attempting to reach the UK via illegal routes, such as the Channel. Patel has vowed to make this crossing “unviable” in the future and has repeatedly berated French ministers for not doing enough to prevent boats from leaving their shores. She has even recently been accused by French interior minister Gérald Darmanin of “financial blackmail”; according to Darmanin, Patel is threatening to withhold the £54 million she promised to France to help them police their shores if the numbers of Channel crossings continue to rise.
Rather than looking to understand the reasons behind these Channel crossings, exploring long-term solutions to help solve this humanitarian crisis or providing safer routes to the UK, Patel is simply working harder to shut people out and cracking down on punishments. Criminalising the Channel crossing will not help people get to safety - it will only add another level of risk to their journeys. The head of Refugee Action, Tim Naor Hilton, has branded this bill as “cruel and unworkable” and explained that the government’s “relentless desire to raise the drawbridge without creating more routes to safety leaves desperate refugees with little choice than to put their lives in the hands of people smugglers”.
This bill would also make it a potential criminal offence for anybody to rescue or provide aid to people crossing the Channel, if this help will “facilitate” their passage to the UK. This would include the RNLI workers who risk their lives daily rescuing people from the Channel which, according to Nigel Farage, makes them a “taxi service for illegal immigration”. How on earth ministers can sit back and argue that saving someone’s life is a criminal offence is something I will never comprehend. Nobody would willingly embark on dangerous journeys such as this if they had any other choice, yet they are still being treated like criminals.
Unfortunately, the xenophobic attitudes espoused by Farage, Patel and other government ministers are not new to the UK; rather, they seem to be a continuation of the narrative spun by the 2016 Brexit ‘Leave’ campaign. Xenophobia certainly had a huge part to play in the outcome of this referendum, when nationalistic chants of “take back our country” swept across Britain and the idea of foreigners “stealing” British jobs was perpetuated by right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail.
And today, the government continues to push this rhetoric. The official government website is littered with language that seems to paint all foreign citizens as threatening individuals: Patel’s new bill will aim to “remove from the UK those with no right to be here”, the website states, including “over 10,000 Foreign National Offenders [who are] circulating on the streets, posing a risk to the public”. The government are clearly attempting to justify their blatant hostility towards migrants by upholding the narrative that they will bring disorder to this country, prowling our streets and looking to cause trouble. The more the public believes these (false) narratives they are presented with, the less likely they will be to welcome and support refugees.
I am not claiming to be sitting here writing this article with a perfect solution in mind as to how the UK can best deal with this humanitarian crisis. The recent situation in Afghanistan is just one of the many horrific catastrophes currently occurring across the world, and with each of these comes thousands of people in desperate need of help. But the UK is in a position where, compared to many countries, we actually have the means with which to open our arms and make a difference.
Yet we have a government who treat refugees as criminals, a government determined to make the UK an impossible place for asylum seekers to safely reach, and a government who only further stir up xenophobic narratives with their policies and their words. What we can and must do, therefore, is show the compassion that our government lacks and look at these situations on a human level, rather than a political one. It really is the bare minimum.
Helpful resources and information:
- Choose Love: https://helprefugees.org/ & @chooselove on Instagram
- Template to write to your MP about welcoming more Afghan refugees: https://action.helprefugees.org/page/88374/action/1
- Refugee Action: https://www.refugee-action.org.uk/
- @rustamwahab_ on Instagram posts frequent updates about the situation in Afghanistan.
- 'The Worldwide Tribe: Stories from the Refugee Crisis' podcast (available on Spotify) & @theworldwidetribe on Instagram
- SolidariTee (@teesofsolidarity) is a student-led charity. 100% of the profits of their T-shirts goes to Refugee Aid.