A teenage boy has died after trying to cross the Channel. If the UK’s toxic asylum policy remains, he won’t be the last.

A teenage boy has died after trying to cross the Channel. If the UK’s toxic asylum policy remains, he won’t be the last.

A young boy has died at sea. He’s not the first, and unless there is swift action, he sadly won’t be the last. He died alone, in the dark, drowned at the border of a country that didn’t care enough to protect him, or offer any other way to make that journey. We knew that this would happen, and we knew what could have been done to prevent it. 

He was a young person with hopes and dreams. We’ll never know the pain of the family who have lost him, thousands of miles away from home. We may never even know his name. But we do know what is wrong and what needs to be done. We’ve known this for decades.

The fact is that there are no safe and legal routes for people like him to reach the UK and seek protection. Everyone has the right to claim asylum under international law, to do this in any country, and to have a fair hearing when they do so. But the UK doesn’t accept asylum applications made outside the country, and any other routes for coming to the UK are vanishingly small. The UK’s Global Resettlement Scheme, which aims to resettle just 5,000 of the “most vulnerable” refugees a year, has been suspended since March 2020 due to coronavirus – no alternative arrangements or measures have been put in place. Even when this route was open, it was only open to a tiny proportion of people seeking refuge: just 0.02 per cent of displaced people globally. Many of those who were eligible had already waited years on end in dangerous camps before they even made it onto the waiting list. 

That means people – some of them fleeing horrors most of us can’t even imagine – have to somehow reach the UK before they can apply. They can’t jump on a plane because they don’t have a visa, and any airline that allowed them to board would face a hefty fine for letting them travel here without the right documents. Those who manage to reach Europe are still at the mercy of a system that’s stacked against them. Children in Greece hoping to reach family members in other European countries spend an average of 16 months, often homeless and destitute, waiting to be transferred to join relatives under EU regulations. In France, they are often subject to beatings, tear gas and intimidation at the hands of French police

The closure of other routes by which to seek asylum in the UK means that making a dangerous journey – in a boat, clinging to the bottom of a lorry, dodging trains in the Channel tunnel or huddling inside freezing trucks – is not a choice that people make. It’s a choice made for them by government policy.

None of this will be news to the government. The Home Secretary was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee when it warned just last year that “a policy that focuses exclusively on closing borders will drive migrants to take more dangerous routes, and push them into the hands of criminal groups.” A stark warning – and yet, since becoming Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s focus seems to have been exclusively on closing borders and making the Channel crossing “unviable”. This week, we’ve seen the consequences. A boy has paid the price for the choices made by successive governments with his life.  

It doesn’t have to be like this. The Home Secretary says she’s “upset” at the loss of this boy’s life. If she checks her inbox she’ll find a letter sent last week from 100 civil society organisations setting out the simple actions she could take right now to prevent any further tragedy. Re-establishing and broadening the resettlement scheme would be an obvious, easy first step. So would a proper system for humanitarian visas, asylum claim centres overseas, expanded family reunion routes and a re-opening of the Dubs scheme, which welcomes unaccompanied children. These are workable solutions that would end this cycle of misery and chaos. 

But instead of doing any of this, the Home Secretary has spent the summer following Nigel Farage around the UK’s coastal towns. A few weeks behind him, but always dancing to his tune. This well-rehearsed ritual of demonising vulnerable people, posing with the navy, encouraging hysteria and then feigning surprise when it doesn’t end well would be boring if it were not so tragic, or dangerous. This year the moral panic has come at a convenient time for the government, as difficult questions are asked of them – such as why we have the worst coronavirus death toll in Europe, for instance, or why are we also facing the worst recession on the continent. 

MPs and so much of the media have merrily answered the call, with reporters out in speedboats on breakfast TV asking desperate and frightened people where they’re from as they try and bail water out of their listing dinghies. In some ways, the horror of this boy’s death is part of that same spectacle. It’s moments like these that shock us, and remind us of what’s at stake.

As politicians in the UK and across the Channel play political football with people’s lives, we need to remember the simple facts. It can never be illegal to seek asylum. People are forced to put their lives into the hands of smugglers because there is simply no alternative. The only way to stop their lives from being lost is to establish safe and legal routes, now. Anything less is a shocking abdication of responsibility, in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Mary Atkinson is Families Together Campaign Officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

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