With small boat crossings continuing to represent a humanitarian and political challenge, Raul Lai argues in this long read that we have a moral and historic obligation to asylum seekers.
In 2020, I turned 21 and in my first 21 years almost 300 asylum seekers had lost their lives attempting to cross the Channel (Taylor, 2020). Since then, with heart breaking stories like that of the November 2021 tragedy where 27 people died after an inflatable dingy capsized, it is obvious to everyone that the UK needs to do something to stop these fatal crossings. That is because these crossings should not be happening in the first place. Refugees should not have to be forced into making them in order to claim asylum.
It is a national disgrace, however, the way our political discourse has approached these issues. Let us be clear from the beginning, the majority of those crossing the Channel are refugees fleeing from war, persecution, and destruction (Refugee Council, 2023). This objective fact seems to be lost somehow. Instead, they are deemed ‘illegal’ because of their methods of reaching the UK to claim asylum and are instead part of an ‘invasion’ coming to take social housing from the British and collapse the NHS with their presence.
That is why I find the ‘stop the boats’ narrative to be so outrageous. For too long, they have been scapegoated as our problem and not as human beings who we have an obligation to support. It has become common place for this once far-right dog whistle to be used by major political parties when it comes to describing immigration policies. So much focus has been placed on ‘stopping the boats’ and ‘taking control of our borders’ that the main debate around asylum seekers is centred on mistruths and how to deter and punish those who cross the Channel. The political class is failing to challenge the narrative we are being fed and have at times perpetuated it. In the face of growing far-right violence, it is not enough to criticise policies based on workability or cost. We need to challenge and rewrite the narrative surrounding asylum seekers and their journeys to the UK. That starts with understanding why people are coming to the UK and the obligations we have as a Country to welcome and accommodate refugees.
The UK’s obligation to asylum seekers can be broken down into three parts. The first two are our moral and legal obligations. The UK has a rich history of opening its borders to vulnerable people fleeing war, persecution and destruction. In the aftermath of WWII, as millions of people were displaced all over Europe, we recognised the need to protect these vulnerable people and vowed to protect them as part of an international effort. As a result, we became a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, one of our many legal obligations to refugees. 70 years later, refugees are still vulnerable and are still fleeing war, persecution and destruction. With conflicts raging across most continents in the World, we should embrace our history with refugees and continue to welcome, accommodate and support those who are fleeing from war, persecution and destruction in accordance with our international obligations. What we should not be doing is perpetuating their suffering with hostile policies like the Rwanda scheme or demonising them to distract from our own domestic failings. If we want to be a global figure that sets the pace for human rights, peace and democracy we must stand by refugees and have our immigration policies be a reflection of the compassionate country we are.
These obligations, however, are ultimately underpinned by our historical obligation. Most of the refugees who come to Europe fleeing war and persecution do not actually do so hoping to come to the UK (Guyoncourt, 2021). In 2015, whilst Hungary received the highest number of applications in proportion to its population at 1,800 applications per 100,000 people, the UK only received 60 per 100,000 (Bhambra, 2017, pg.396-397).
There are two reasons as to why refugees do decide to come to the UK. The first is familiar environments (Sanderson, 2022). A Refugee Action spokesperson said that ‘Refugees want a place where they can rebuild their lives where they feel safe’ (Guyoncourt, 2021). Across the UK, there are prominent Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nigerian and Caribbean communities (Sanderson, 2022). Communities with familiar environments can provide those feelings of safety and security as it reduces the feelings of isolation with relatable food, music and cultural traditions helping them to feel more at home. And quite often, those communities will often have family connections, which is the second reason. Family connections is something that nearly 50% of the refugees Care4Calais works with mentioned as a main motivator for coming to the UK (Guyoncourt, 2021). By seeking asylum in a country with established family connections, they would arrive to find support systems, sources of information and advice. It is these established presences of ethnic minority communities that draw refugees to the UK.
Our historical obligation can be found in these established communities when we consider our ‘connected histories’. A concept within the field of historical sociology, ‘Connected histories’ encourages us to look more closely at the smaller connections that produce a different understanding of the world (Bhambra, 2010, pg.139). When we pull on the thread of why there are these established presences of ethnic minority communities in the UK that draw refugees to us, we uncover our colonial past. Whether that be the British Nationality Act of 1948 that gave British Citizenship to the populations of British Colonies and Commonwealth countries, the looting and destruction caused by British Imperialism in former colonies or the ‘Windrush Generation’ answering the call from the NHS, our colonial history is a major reason as to why people cross the Channel. More recently, we can look to our Foreign Policy. For example, the invasion of Iraq which created the instability and in turn created mass displacement of Iraqi citizens, as acknowledged by a former Tank Commander on LBC (see here):
Because of our colonial past and ‘connected histories’ with refugees, a large part of why they arrive on our shores is because history ties them to the UK. This should not, and cannot, be forgotten. It must be a part of our immigration debate.
These people crossing the Channel are not illegal, nor are they ‘invading’ the UK. These are some of the world’s most vulnerable people who arrive on our shores as a result of our three obligations. One way or another, these refugees have a connection to the UK and this is being forgotten, or ignored, in our political discourse. Instead, we are fixated with ‘stopping the boats’. We need to stop this narrative and rewrite it more accurately and in a way that highlights our obligations to refugees. Ignoring them doesn’t make these obligations disappear, it just means we are failing those fleeing from war, persecution and destruction. Every one of us have an obligation to challenge and rewrite this narrative that we have been fed.
We will never have an honest or productive debate on the Channel Crossings until we engage with our moral, legal and historical obligations. We will never find the solutions to end these fatal Channel Crossings until we engage with our moral, legal and historical obligations. And we will never truly be the compassionate and accommodating country I know we are until we engage with our moral, legal and historical obligations.
Bhambra, Gurminder K, ‘Historical sociology, international relations and connected histories’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. 23, No. 1 (2010), Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, pg.127-143)
Bhambra, Gurminder K., ‘The current crisis of Europe: Refugees, colonialism, and the limits of cosmopolitanism’, European Law Journal, Vol.23, No.5 (2017), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., pg.395-405
Guyoncourt, Sally, ‘Why do migrants come to the UK? What forces refugees to cross the Channel, and why they leave France’, i news, 2021, https://inews.co.uk/news/migrants-why-come-uk-refugees-crossing-channel-leave-france-explained-1318651
Refugee Council, ‘Top facts from the latest statistics on refugees and people seeking asylum’, Refugee Council, 2023, https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/information/refugee-asylum-facts/top-10-facts-about-refugees-and-people-seeking-asylum/
Sanderson, Sertan, ‘Why do migrants try to come to the United Kingdom?’, InfoMigrants, 2022, https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/37004/why-do-migrants-try-to-come-to-the-united-kingdom#:~:text=Some%20migrants%20consider%20the%20UK's,these%20values%20have%20been%20eroded
Taylor, Diane, ‘Almost 300 asylum seekers have died trying to cross the Channel since 1999’, The Guardian, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/oct/29/almost-300-asylum-seekers-have-died-trying-to-cross-the-channel-since-1999
Raul is a Policy Staffer for a Labour MP and was a candidate for Woking Borough Council in 2022. Before that, he was a Generalist Adviser and Caseworker at Citizens Advice. Shaped by his experiences and a long-held desire for a just society, Raul’s key interest areas are in poverty and inequality, human rights, housing, homelessness and refugee protections. Raul can be found at @RaulLai1 on Twitter.