Will the migrant tragedy in the English Channel make a difference?

Will the migrant tragedy in the English Channel make a difference?

Migrants are approached by an RNLI lifeboat before being taken to a beach in Dungeness, on the southeast coast of England, on November 24, 2021. (AFP)

The UK has been both devastated and polarized by last week’s tragedy in the English Channel, where at least 27 lives were lost when the dinghy carrying them disintegrated in freezing waters.
We are devastated because we remember the very public death of baby Alan in 2015 and the photograph of his body on a Turkish beach, which was such a vivid picture of the perils faced by those fleeing across the Mediterranean.
This image put a human face on “the migrant”, forcing the world to confront what is not a natural and anonymous phenomenon, but the fate of a person from whom they could not turn away. Likewise, we now know the names of some of the victims who drowned in the Channel last week and something about their lives.
Maryam Nuri Hamdamin, for example, hoped to reunite with her fiancé in Britain. Khazal Ahmed and her children, Mubin, Hadia and Hasti Rezgar, hoped to start a better life in England and be joined by her police officer husband. Like them, most of those who died appear to be Iraqi Kurds.
But media and conversations in the UK have been heavily polarized. There was universal horror and sympathy for the loss of life and the circumstances in which it happened, but that is where any deal ends.
The human desire to do something to prevent such a risk to life at the hands of human trafficking gangs is reflected in the very different solutions that have been suggested. These range from opening up additional legal avenues for immigration to the UK, which would end the demand for illegal and dangerous routes, to ‘simple’ solutions such as sending boats back to sea, deporting immediately those returning to France or making arrivals in the UK under such circumstances are illegal, thus denying any possibility of seeking asylum in the future, regardless of the legal and humanitarian obstacles that would have to be overcome to pursue such policies.
However, there are more mixed comments on the issue than I remember there have been before, with greater acknowledgment of the seeming impossibility of being able to successfully address the issues of either migration, which has steeped in human history, be its constant companion, dangerous flight. Our policy does not long tolerate “we don’t know what to do” as an answer, but I believe that is exactly where the destination countries are.
There is a difficult background to the question in the UK. There is ample evidence that the nation is a welcoming destination for those who come to make their living here; the anecdotal stories of those seeking a “better life” are not based on fantasy but on the real experiences of families who are already there and new lives shared and viewed on millions of phones.
The UK has historically taken in refugees and asylum seekers, but currently not as many as some of our European neighbors – and much, much less than states bordering conflict zones. The number of Channel crossings is increasing sharply, but asylum applications are not at the level of the crisis of 20 years ago.
But the facts tend to get swept away in a time of echo chambers and political necessity, wherever you are in the world. In recent years, and today, Europe has seen at several border barriers crowds of people from countries experiencing various situations, not all of which involved active conflicts. These numbers don’t look likely to drop anytime soon and regardless of how many people are taken in, if the only bar to cross is that a “better life” is available elsewhere, the number of people looking for it will increase exponentially. .
It is easy to target destination countries and claim they need to do more. In the short to medium term, some fine-tuning of legal immigration pathways to the UK and EU would help ease some of the pressure, but it would be a bold advocate who claims creating such pathways would solve the problem. Permanently.

It would be a bold advocate who would claim that creating legal immigration pathways to the UK and EU would solve the problem permanently.

Alistair Burt

As long as you have a process to which “no” can be an answer, you have a request for ways around it. The British and French political systems fear challenges from the right of the political spectrum if their borders appear to weaken, and are struggling with their bilateral relations under the pressure created by this issue.
Those who risk it all not to escape an immediate physical threat but for the promise of “something better” than they have also tell us a lot about the states they come from, but fewer probing questions are posed to these countries and their leaders. Is there a certain sense of inevitability about the inadequate governance, poor quality of life and lack of opportunity that drives away some of the brightest and most determined talent?
Migration is a fact of life and will remain so. Its occasional acute crises will not be resolved by focusing exclusively on either end of the chain of motion, but on the legitimate needs and concerns of people on both sides. Until this is recognized, we will read more human misery than we would like.

  • Alistair Burt is a former British MP who held two cabinet posts in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK

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