Clare Moseley is the founder of charity association Care4Calais.
CALAIS, France — This week’s tragedy in which 27 people lost their lives crossing the English Channel may have shocked people around the world, but I’m secretly afraid it could lead to something worse: that it can happen again and that we can get used to it.
Europe now seems to have simply accepted that large numbers of people are needlessly drowning in the Mediterranean. Is it possible that Britain, once hailed as a bastion of democracy and human rights, will come to accept a similar horrific fate in the English Channel?
Those of us familiar with the conditions in northern France tried to sound the alarm earlier this fall; we spoke, we organized demonstrations, we campaigned. We saw some of the public take notice, but the media attention waned. Last week’s individual drownings, babies pulled out of freezing water deserved only a few lines in print, if that.
A greater tragedy was both foreseeable and predicted.
Residents of northern France seeking safety in the UK have taken increasingly risky journeys, whether on overcrowded boats organized by smugglers, or in flimsy dinghies or kayaks they own themselves purchased.
And little by little, the number of lost people kept growing. Five have been confirmed dead, five not recovered and several hundred rescued since September alone. We will never really know how many more were swept into the North Sea. We only know of the deaths since Wednesday because the bodies were accidentally found by a fisherman.
But these crossings, like people smuggling, are symptoms of a larger underlying problem: people in northern France want to seek asylum in the UK. However, they can only do so if they are physically present on UK soil. And without means of access, they then risk their lives in small boats, or embark in trucks, to try to cross the English Channel.
It is fundamentally unfair. Asylum seekers, by definition, are fleeing the world’s greatest dangers. They have survived bloody conflicts, lost their families to bombs or starvation, and some have been tortured and suffered the most horrific abuses. Having escaped such conditions, the very last thing they should have to do is risk their lives again in the pursuit of freedom and security.
This problem can be solved and further deaths prevented, all quite easily. All we need is a system that allows people to claim asylum in the UK without having to risk their lives.
One option would be initial screenings in France to see if someone is likely to have a viable asylum claim. And then, if they do, they could be safely transferred to the UK, where their request would be heard fairly.
It would also achieve what the UK government says it wants – it would put the smugglers out of business overnight. The lack of an effective system is what makes this business thrive. Create a safe and legal route, and the smugglers would disappear.
More importantly, it would save lives.
Journalists have asked me what will happen then to people who are told they have no chance and therefore will not be transferred to the UK. Wouldn’t they always try to take an illegal route? The facts suggest not. Some 98% of people crossing the Channel on small boats submit an asylum application on arrival in the UK This is very much in line with what people on the ground are telling us.
The reason these people make the crossing is that they are looking for a better life. They want safety, security, to build a better future. . . Without this possibility, they are unlikely to risk their lives. If there is no chance of living a safe and legal life, the incentive is removed.
One might wonder why the British government did not then consider such an obvious option. The answer to this question is linked to another key question that needs to be asked urgently.
The UK currently hosts fewer refugees than many of its European neighbors. In 2020, for example, Germany registered more than 100,000 asylum applications, Spain around 86,000, France 81,000 and Great Britain only 29,000. Yet people in the UK are no less compassionate than citizens of other countries, and we care about the plight of refugees. In 2020, we welcomed 65,000 people from Hong Kong no problem.
Another 30,000 refugees will not sink our island. The question is why exactly, when the UK already takes in so few refugees, is our government so determined not to take in any?