Playing politics while people die

Opinion remains divided over refugees in small boats

It is time for a reality check. It is time for everyone who can make even the slightest difference to stop posturing and chasing political gain by acting honestly, seriously and with all possible urgency. Many lives are being lost in this appalling and continuing human tragedy played out daily on our television screens, and every life lost is a life too many. But governments on both sides of the Channel continue to play politics.

The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted a five-point plan letter to French President Emmanuel Macron on ways to tackle the crisis of refugees crossing the channel in flimsy rubber boats. The letter, which included a proposal for joint UK/French patrols on French beaches and plans to send most refugees reaching England back to France, had done the rounds on social media and made the front pages of UK newspapers before Macron had even seen it.

It prompted the President to tell Johnson to “get serious” and he added, “We do not communicate from one leader to another on these issues by tweets and letters we make public.” But the EU then engaged in some politics of its own, withdrawing an invitation to Home Secretary Priti Patel to attend a crisis meeting of ministers from France, the Netherlands, Belgium and the European Commission, and the meeting went ahead without UK participation.

At the meeting migration officials pledged to act more closely in the fight against people-smuggling networks. French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin later extended an olive branch, stating that leaders had stressed the need to work with the UK, adding that the meeting was not intended to be “anti-English, [but] pro-European”. It is clear, however, that in Europe and elsewhere the feeling remains that the UK is putting its interests above everything else and that the government’s first priority is keeping refugees out.

Increasingly, many claim that policy appears to revolve around inflammatory or exaggerated claims and invented statistics, rather than genuine facts. For example the Health Secretary Sajid Javid stated recently that since 2015 the UK had resettled over 25,000 people, “more than any other country in Europe”. This is untrue: Germany has resettled more than a million refugees over the same period and other European nations also far exceed the UK figure. Meanwhile Priti Patel continues to term the majority of channel crossers as “economic migrants, not genuine asylum seekers.”

Again this is a false claim, with her own department’s figures showing that of the top ten nationalities of people arriving in small boats, virtually all seek asylum, with 61% granted it at the initial stage and 59% of the remainder on appeal. Most asylum seekers come from Iran, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. They are fleeing civil war, famine, destitution and persecution. The government has shut down virtually every official route to resettlement, so until a more humane and realistic approach is adopted the boats will continue to take to the sea. Patel claims there is “no quick fix” and that at least is true. But as Lord Kerr stated in a House of Lords debate, “the facts do not support a case for cruelty.”

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