Draconian border security does not work and costs lives. Why is Britain pushing it? | Daniel Trille
In the Calais World War II museum, housed in a former Nazi bunker in one of the city’s parks, a room is dedicated to smugglers. A giant map shows the routes by which members of the French resistance brought fiery Jews, stranded British soldiers and others out of German-controlled territory. The paths stretch from France to southern Europe and beyond the Mediterranean – an echo of the dangerous journeys undertaken by many who seek to reach the UK without permission today.
Trafficking in people across borders is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Those who do can show a callous disregard for human life. Or they may be motivated by a desire to protect and nurture, such as when Rob Lawrie, an army veteran who volunteered in the Calais refugee camp in 2015, hid a four-year-old Afghan girl in his van and tried to board a ferry to Britain. (Lawrie narrowly escaped jail time but was convicted in France of the lesser offense of endangering a child.) Very often the “smugglers” are the people themselves on the move, helping each other in their travels.
What these efforts have in common – from heroic acts in wartime, to for-profit gangs, to acts of charity – is that they serve needs. When people feel pressured to move, they will look for ways to do so. If obstacles are placed in their path, the chances of them turning to smuggling services, or attempting dangerous journeys of their own accord, will increase.
After last week’s disaster – the deadliest on the UK’s border with mainland Europe since 39 people were found dead in a lorry in Essex in October 2019 – the UK government is under pressure to put end at the Channel crossings. His instinct is to achieve even more border security: on November 26, Boris Johnson proposed no more sea patrols, no more electronic surveillance, no more espionage and tougher treatment of migrants who reach the UK. But the situation in the Channel is the clearest evidence we have of the direction in which an endless focus on security is leading.
For more than two decades, successive governments have sought to discourage unwanted migrants, mostly asylum seekers, from crossing the Channel. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Britain and France implemented “side-by-side” border controls, placing agents in transport hubs in their respective countries, to prevent people from taking ferries and trains. When people hid in vehicles instead, Britain convinced France and its neighbors to increase security at ports and entry points. In 2014, for example, the UK pledged £ 12million to help France build fences around the port of Calais to prevent people from breaking and entering. As these journeys became more difficult, the use of small boats became more common from 2018, accelerating in 2020 as the pandemic closed other travel options.
We have known for years that border security has deadly consequences. Between 1999 and 2020, according to a report published by the Institute for Race Relations, just under 300 people lost their lives trying to get to the UK. People were run over by cars on highways in northern France, suffocated in trucks or were electrocuted in the Channel Tunnel, and drowned. But the shift to small boats is potentially much more dangerous: As market dynamics make smugglers cram people into dangerous boats, many other migrants simply band together to buy theirs, as the National Crime Agency admits. from the United Kingdom.
From the UK government, you couldn’t find an answer more likely to make the situation worse. Not only does it follow the safety-focused trajectory of its predecessors, but it now boils down to Johnson’s toxic post-Brexit mode of engagement. His diplomatic attitude has deteriorated relations with France, which makes international cooperation more difficult. Some have noted the irony Brexit seems to have given the UK less border control – by leaving the EU’s joint asylum agreement at the end of 2020, for example, the UK has lost the possibility of returning asylum seekers to other European countries that ‘they could have crossed. But by far the biggest problem is the Nationality and Borders Bill which is currently making its way through Parliament.
The bill is an attempt to reshape politics around the faragist lie that the country is at the ‘breaking point’ of unwanted immigration, by introducing a system that punishes asylum seekers who arrive in the UK of their own accord. This, Priti Patel said, will encourage refugees to use official routes, ensuring that asylum is “based on need, not the ability to pay smugglers”. Yet the government own assessment of the legislation admits that there is “a risk that increased security and deterrence [asylum seekers] to attempt riskier means of entering the UK ”and that“ the evidence to support the effectiveness of this approach is limited ”.
Opponents of the bill argue – and rightly so – that the UK should instead expand safe routes to asylum, through formal refugee resettlement programs. Even where the government claims to want it, its efforts are sorely lacking: the much vaunted Afghan Citizen Resettlement Program has still not opened, more than three months after the capture of Kabul by the Taliban. (Thursday, the day after the disaster in the Channel, a former Afghan soldier was among the passengers from a boat that arrived at Dungeness beach in Kent.) A concerted effort to encourage people to seek asylum in other ways could undermine demand for smuggled routes. Secure facilities in northern France where people could stay and seek asylum in either country – or humanitarian visas that allow people to travel to the UK to make their claims – would reduce the need for people to attempt crossings.
However, whether the answer is authoritarian or liberal, a common mistake would be to think that there will be a “solution” to the Channel crossings in the sense that either approach will make this problem completely disappear. As long as the UK wants to maintain border controls, there will be people who want to escape them. We can choose to mitigate the damage caused by these checks or ignore them. Going further, however, would require a more profound rethink of our attitudes towards migration and how the UK relates to the rest of the world.
So far, little is known about the 27 people who died on Wednesday. Yet what we already know suggests that they were not complete strangers to Britain. Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin, a 24-year-old Kurdish student from northern Iraq, was trying to join her fiancé here. Harem Pirot, 25 and from the same part of the world as Maryam, was trying to join his brother in Cambridge. Why did the two see a deadly boat trip as their only option to keep up with these daily family relationships? And what would it take for our society to view such international relations as a force rather than a threat?
After tragedies like last week’s, our political leaders say they want to stop smuggling. What they really mean is that they want to stop the migrants. These two things are not the same – and the gap between them is a matter of life and death.