As around a hundred migrants have crossed the Channel in recent weeks, the Government and the Border Force are trying to prevent a new route into the UK at all costs.
Since the beginning of November, over 200 migrants have arrived Britain after crossing the Channel. In December, 230 attempted the crossing, but half never managed to leave France. Some have been treated for hypothermia, children have been sent to social services while adults have been handed over to immigration officials. The surge in numbers is down to a few factors: mild weather, reduced border security over the Christmas period and an expectation that border security will be tightened after the UK leaves the EU.
The Tories and the media have manufactured a crisis out of a couple of hundred people crossing from France to Britain in flimsy boats. Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared the crossings a “major incident” while The Telegraph ran with the headline “Send back Channel migrants or risk tragedy”. Conservative MP for Dover Charlie Elphicke (who was suspended by his party after claims of inappropriate sexual behaviour which he denies, but recently had the whip restored) said that migrants had “broken into Britain” and called for more Border Force boats. On 31 December, two of the UK’s Border Force boats were redeployed from the Mediterranean to the Channel.
In all cases, these ghoulish calls for the suppression of migrants’ movement wear a thin veneer of humanitarian concern. Crossing the Channel is “extremely dangerous” and there will be a “tragedy” unless policy is changed. It is argued that by rescuing migrants at sea, the government is aiding traffickers who put people’s lives at risks. The reality is that preventing deaths at sea is not the driving concern. What the government and the border force are trying to prevent at all costs is a new route into the UK for migrants.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s rhetoric revealed the obsession with preventing successful crossings at all costs, even going as far as to suggest that those who reached Britain across the Channel would be (illegally) treated especially harshly during the asylum process. “People should not be taking this very dangerous journey and, if they do, we also need to send a very strong message that you won’t succeed … If you are a genuine asylum seeker, you could have done that in another safe country … Also, if you do somehow make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure that you are often not successful because we need to break that link.” The genuine asylum seeker should have stayed in France; the lying migrant deserves whatever happens to them. Through the imposition of these categories, the repression of all migrants’ movement and the utterly Kafkaesque and punitive process of seeking asylum in the UK is rationalised.
Javid also attempted to shift blame onto traffickers. Blaming exploitative and cruel traffickers for the dangers migrants face is another easy narrative for anyone invested in defending the border regime. Never mind the fact that migrants in Calais routinely face violence perpetrated by the French police, being pepper sprayed, tear gassed and clubbed by the CRS (riot police) and having their few belongings destroyed. Never mind that migrants themselves usually understand the dangers and want to cross despite everything. Never mind that absent the border regime there would be no reason for trafficking to exist. As Reece Jones has put it, “the existence of the border itself produces the violence that surrounds it”.
The Labour Party pedals this narrative as keenly as anyone. Yvette Cooper called for cooperation between the UK and France to tackle “criminal gangs of people smugglers along the coast”. Diane Abbott, Shadow Home Secretary, called for the government to “get a grip on criminal people smugglers” and made her priority clear: “We need to stop them making the crossing in the first place.” From the most viciously anti-migrant section of the Conservative Party to the most progressive elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the aim of the game is to prevent the majority of migrants in Calais from coming to Britain and seeking asylum.
The only real alternative is to demand safe passage now. Rescue ships run by NGOs have been patrolling the Med for years, but are frequently put out of action by the Italian and Maltese authorities bringing trumped up charges against them. August 2018 marked the longest period without any rescue boats since operations began in 2015, increasing the risk of deaths at sea. Now that some are operating again, the people they rescue (including young children) are denied disembarkation for weeks on end by Malta and Italy. As the situation in Calais and the Channel changes with the UK leaving the EU, the left must stand absolutely in solidarity with migrants trying to make the crossing. The border is the crisis.