Channel refugees need help not hate

By Dave Stockton

The Tories and the right wing tabloids are back at work after the midwinter break: stoking up racism. Their target is the 200 or so refugees who have crossed the English Channel since November, to claim their internationally recognised right to asylum.

Harsh measures by British and French border authorities have made it more difficult and dangerous to hide on lorries, trains or ferries. Temporary camps and shelters have been bulldozed. Racists and criminals have preyed on them. This has forced many to risk their lives at sea. Clearly, crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world in rubber dinghies and small boats is fearfully dangerous and it is right to deploy ships to rescue them and bring them to safety in Britain.

But this was clearly not Tory Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s purpose in sending a naval patrol ship, HMS Mersey, to join two Border Force cutters. His interruption of an expensive safari holiday in South Africa to declare it as a “major incident” indicates his real priorities. 

“My focus continues to be on protecting the UK border and preventing loss of life in the Channel”, he said.

Note the order. In case there were any doubts, he told Sky News “Our job here is to make sure this doesn’t turn into a new route for ever-increased illegal migration, so I want to stop it now as much as I possibly can”. He also stated that Britain would be making asylum claims more difficult, to discourage people from coming. “If you do somehow make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure that you are often not successful.”

The Government stated it was doing “everything we can” to ensure migrants are returned to France where possible, though if Border Force vessels pick up migrants in British waters, they would have be taken to port in Britain.

Javid also suggests many are not ‘genuine’ asylum seekers:

“A question has to be asked: if you are a genuine asylum seeker why have you not sought asylum in the first safe country that you arrived in? Because France is not a country where anyone would argue it is not safe in anyway whatsoever, and if you are genuine then why not seek asylum in your first safe country?”

Fortress Britain 

In fact, Britain and France collude in keeping the encampments around the channel ports squalid and highly unsafe. He also ignores the fact that for most their only knowledge of a European language is English, and some have relatives here.

Javid, like most Tory and too many Labour, Home Secretaries, is dancing to the racist tune of the Express, the Mail and the Sun, which demanded, “We must stem the tide of migrant boats crossing the Channel”.

Not to be outdone, the Tory MP for Dover and Deal, Charlie Elphicke, called for “investment in stronger borders all the way along our coast”. This Dad’s Army nonsense would be funny if it were not targeted at penniless and desperate people who have already been grossly maltreated and driven from their homes and abused and insulted on their journey across Europe.

The idea that Britain is under siege has been whipped into a frenzy since the EU referendum campaign of 2016. Nigel Farage has recently claimed that it was his infamous Brexit poster showing a column of Syrian refugees on the Croatia-Slovenia border with the legend “We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders”, which won it for Leave. 

No matter that he was wilfully confusing the “free movement” of EU citizens, nurses from Portugal, electricians from Poland, with those fleeing the “humanitarian” wars that Britain and its Nato partners have been waging for the last 16 years. For them, Europe’s borders are already far from “open”. 

The reality is that Britain has taken in hardly any people from the conflict zones of the Middle East, Central Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa, just a few thousands while Germany took close on a million and a much smaller country, Sweden, several hundred thousand. Britain is not a member of the Schengen passport-free zone, as anyone who has holidayed abroad can tell you. Only citizens of EU member states are allowed in without immigration status checks. 

The number granted asylum in Britain was a disgraceful 4,981 over the last year. Government figures estimate that only 1,832 clandestine entrants, that is, people arriving on small boats, stowaways on ferries and in the backs of lorries, made it to the UK ports in 2017/18, a decrease of 23 per cent on the year before when it stood at 2,366. 

Over half of those applying for asylum are refused because they cannot provide sufficient documentary proof or “evidence” of torture or rape. The international treaties and charters that accord the right of asylum do not demand such material. But then no court enforces these solemn declarations on powerful states. 

Meanwhile, it is estimated that the number of refugees living in dreadful conditions around Calais, Caen and Dunkirk in northern France and around the Belgian ports is around 1,500. Far from being a flood, or a tide, the number of asylum seekers, compared with countries closer to the war zones is a trickle, easy for a wealthy country like Britain to absorb. 

Labour’s weak response 

Labour’s shadow home secretary, Diane Abbot, was correct when she described the Tories’ scaremongering: “It’s the Farage technique, ‘hordes’ of people trying to enter the country. You frighten people about that.”

Jeremy Corbyn has also stated: “they are the product of wars, they are the product of human rights abuses, they are the product of environmental disasters. Europe cannot close its borders to them.”

When it comes to concrete proposals, however, Labour becomes totally evasive. They call for more cooperation with French authorities, support the sending of the boats and refugees’  right to come to Britain “when they are found in British territorial waters”. Nothing that is not already being done. 

Diane Abbot, on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, accepted the narrative that the issue was to stop them coming. Yes, it was important for the British naval forces to save lives but, she added, “that’s only a palliative. You have to stop them making the crossing in the first place.”

“We need to work with the French to work with these people and advise them on what their real options are.” Hmm, Hmm, what might that mean? When the interviewer pointed out, surely these people want to come to Britain, Diane replied, “Well I’ve visited some of these camps and some of them don’t have a realistic attitude about this country”.

What she did not dare to say is that refugees in northern France and Belgium wanting to come to Britain, have a right to seek asylum here and should be welcomed. They should be brought here by normal, safe, modes of transport. That is the answer to the dangers of the sea crossing and exploitation by people smugglers.

Like Labour’s ducking and diving over Brexit, this shows that the Corbyn leadership is “left” for just as long as it does not threaten Labour’s relations with “our people”, that is, those who voted Leave because of their false belief that immigration is the cause of run down areas in Britain. There is only one way to deal with this and that is to contradict it. To tell the truth to prejudice, to educate the ignorant. That is what a socialist party would do.

This shows the urgent need to organise a Left curent in the Labour party and in the unions; one which does not set its compass by electoral opportunism but sees its job as combatting backward ideas, including amongst Labour’s own voters. 

This is why Red Flag says, open the borders to all seeking asylum and to workers seeking work.