Boris Johnson’s immigration minister came back from a much-hyped summit with his French counterparts this week babbling about a “new comprehensive joint operational plan” to tackle migrants coming across the English Channel. But it is just babble. The truth is that the kind of pan-EU co-operation needed to meet the EU’s migrant challenge is further away than ever as Britain prepares to exit the EU once and for all. The current hysteria about the numbers of migrants crossing the Channel in rubber dinghies is not just distasteful but ultimately pointless.
The migrants are depicted by Tory MPs as some kind of invading army. The channel crossings are presented as the Normandy landings, but in reverse. These bedraggled migrants, who include women, pregnant women and children, are being systematically dehumanised whilst important facts about the situation are ignored.
First of all, these are people, not flotsam and jetsam floating on the waters of the English Channel. I have visited the refugee camps in Northern France, Lesbos in Greece and Lebanon. You cannot stress enough how desperate these migrants are. But they have human rights – and once they reach British waters, they are absolutely British responsibility.
These migrants have not sprung out of the ground in Northern France. They have crossed Europe from the Middle East and North Africa. These waves of migrants are a Europe-wide responsibility and the solution will involve Europe as a whole. What seems to be happening currently is that too many EU countries are virtually waving migrants across the border to the next country because they don’t want the migrants actually settling in their own country.
Every EU country should step up to their responsibility to asylum seekers – or, at the very least, they should contribute to a central fund to support EU countries bearing the brunt. If there were a properly resourced and properly thought-through Europe-wide strategy, there would not be the numbers of migrants gathering in Northern France that we currently see. And my impression visiting the refugee camps in Northern France was that the French were not making great efforts to encourage and facilitate migrants claiming asylum there.
But instead of talking about greater European co-operation, too many British politicians are making the channel crossings issue to be some kind of Franco-British war. The idea of sending in the Royal Navy is both foolish and dangerous. As an anonymous Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “It is beyond absurd to think that we should be deploying multi-million pound ships and elite soldiers to deal with desperate people barely staying afloat on rubber dinghies in the Channel.” The danger is that big naval ships are used to turn around rubber dinghies, with the inevitability that one will capsize and people will die.
Worse British politicians are wailing about the migrants as if these desperate people are themselves the problem. Unsurprisingly, Nigel Farage claims that all migrants are a security risk and possible ISIS supporters. But the real problem is the people smugglers. When I visited the refugee camps in Greece, I saw a similar situation to Dover/Calais. You can stand on the shoreline in Turkey and see the coast of Greek Islands like Lesbos. This incentivises the people smugglers.
The smugglers charge people ridiculous sums of money to sail rubber dinghies to Greece and the EU. Normally there is no seaman on the dinghy, and sometimes desperate migrants are sold fake life jackets that ensure death by drowning if anything goes wrong. The people smugglers are heartless and their trade in human beings is hugely profitable. They don’t care whether the migrants live or die. Very often their accomplices are in the refugee camps.
EU countries and Britain could do a lot more to take proactive action against these criminal gangs. One Leonard Powell, a gang leader from Kent, was jailed in 2018 after making over a quarter of a million from people trafficking across the channel. In 2015, Interpol estimated that the global profits from people trafficking amounted to over £4bn pounds. It must be even more profitable now.
The Tory right are having to grudgingly concede that turning the rubber dinghies around and back to France would be illegal once the craft have reached British waters. Now some of them are proposing that we come out of the European Convention on Human Rights, and even introduce ID cards.
British politicians need to stop demonising desperate migrants, begin working at genuine pan-European co-operation on this issue, and work with the voluntary sector to develop better, safe and legal routes for refugees, particularly in relation family reunion. Above all, we must stop the shameful scaremongering about migrants.