These lines from a poem by poem by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire remind us that people fleeing from war and persecution do not chose to flee or to expose themselves to dangerous sea crossings.
In September 2015 a group of people met in a cafe in Hay. We were outraged to be watching people die in the Mediterranean and that in the months leading up to the death of little Alan Kurdi the media had been full of stories about ‘illegal migrants’ ‘swarming’ to come to our shores.
Thankfully, there was a dramatic upturn in international concern over the refugee crisis with that sad death and a much more appropriate response of ‘how can we help?’ prevailed. In the UK the Syrian Resettlement Programme started, (although it benefited only a relatively small number of people- 20.000 over 5 years ] and there was an outpouring of support. In our area, HBTSR was set up and has grown steadily ever since.
In the last month, it has begun to feel as if we are returning to square one. Now people are risking their lives by trying to cross the channel in leaky dinghies and the media is again full of stories about illegal migrants, the Prime Minister has called the journeys ‘very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal’. The Home Secretary asked the Navy to send ships to intercept boats crossing, although it appears that the Navy has declined. YouGov issued a poll declaring that: “Almost half of Britons (49%) say they have little (22%) to no sympathy (27%) for the migrants who have been crossing the channel from France to England.” “50% to 35% Brits say that the UK does not have a responsibility to help protect the migrants who are arriving in England from France” and that “More generally, 46% of Britons say that the UK has done more than its fair share to accommodate refugees who have arrived in Europe when compared to other European countries”
According to the BBC, almost 4,000 people have crossed the English Channel so far this year, in more than 300 small boats. There was a new record of at least 235 arrivals on 6 August. The number making the attempt is even higher, but many boats are intercepted by the French authorities. Land routes (via ferries and Eurotunnel) have been made much harder to access, which is why dangerous sea crossing attempts have increased. Of course, this is but a fraction of the numbers reaching and seeking asylum in France, Spain, Italy and Greece. A little balance comes in Inews reporting ‘The despicable attempt to manufacture a migrant crisis out of a trickle of desperate people crossing the Channel on dinghies makes us look cruel and deluded, given how many more migrants apply for asylum in other major European countries.’
And these 4,000 people are less than one per cent of the total immigrants to the UK in 2019. This is not a problem of numbers, but a problem of risk to life and the lack of a humane, rational and legal mechanism to avoid it by making visas available to those who need them.
Major humanitarian groups and charities have warned that there will be an increase in crossings if the UK government does not strike an adequate family reunion deal before the Brexit transition period ends. In June a cross-party group of MPs tried to table an amendment to an immigration bill to protect family reunion rules, but the government voted it down. Sadly, our MP Fay Jones, followed the whip.
So far there is no alternative legal route and as Vickie Hawkins, executive director at Médecins Sans Frontières UK, said: ‘It is deeply hypocritical for the government to attack people for using unsafe routes to the UK, while simultaneously shutting down the few safe, legal routes for seeking sanctuary which exist.’
A support group for people seeking sanctuary cannot stand by and do nothing. We must speak out about this! Here’s what we can do.
1 We must all ask the Home Secretary not to punish people who are trying to find safety. Here is a link to an open letter to Priti Patel and letter we are sending from the group to our own MP, Fay Jones.
2 Please write to our MP again asking her to seek to alter the rhetoric to less aggressive more humane language and to support legal routes for family reunion, We have sent a letter from the group see here, but it will be much more persuasive if every member of the group in the Brecon and Radnor constituency writes their own letter to Fay Jones. Try to use your own words and add any personal or family experiences of meeting, helping or being refugees.
3 Sign this petition calling on the BBC and Sky to stop reporting on refugees and asylum seekers crossing the channel in this dehumanizing way.
4 you can complain directly to Ofcom, IPSO or directly to papers and TV channels who are reporting in this inhumane way. Details here
Please do at least some of these actions as if we all start to speak up things may happen. When the country spoke in 2015 suddenly the hostile environment became kinder.The Government now must take a compassionate approach and come up with effective solutions to make refugee journeys safer. We can help by reminding them of their own humanity.
If you need any further persuasion to act please read this article that concludes’ As we emerge from lockdown we need to rebuild an economy, and salvage what we value from our society, but most importantly we need to regain our humanity and rebuild our sense of solidarity or we will all be lost at sea.’
Here is the text of the letter we are sending to Fay Jones our MP. 17/08/2020
I am writing to you on behalf of our group about the ongoing Channel crossings and the UK Government’s response. Our concerns are threefold
1 Over recent weeks, we have become increasingly concerned about the dehumanising and worrying portrayal in the national media of people seeking sanctuary on UK shores. We fear that this has been fuelled by statements made by the UK government.
We urge you and all your colleagues to make it clear that it is entirely legal for a person seeking sanctuary to enter the UK without documents in order to seek asylum. We are very concerned about the language being used and ask you to urge your colleagues to remember that these are people in distress who deserve our pity not our venom.
2 We are also asking you please to write to the Home Secretary urging her to introduce safe and legal routes to the UK to prevent risk and exploitation.
In the past, the UK has stood up for sanctuary and welcomed people seeking safety from countries and situations as diverse as Nazi Germany, Hungary during the cold war, Vietnam, Uganda under Idi Amin, apartheid South Africa, Chile, Syria under Assad and recently Hong Kong. That tradition, in which we can take some pride, is now at risk.
In 2015, in response to the heart-breaking image of Alan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean, many people in all parts of the UK joined the Sanctuary Movement to make the UK a welcoming place of safety. HBTSR was founded at that time.
Now, in 2020, must we wait for the body of a little child to be washed up on a Kent beach before we rediscover our empathy and solidarity with children and families forced to risk their lives because they have run out of options?
Most of those people seeking sanctuary have family or loved ones in the UK, are at risk of exploitation by people traffickers and smugglers and are fleeing war or persecution. No one would risk their lives on a boat unless it was the only way forward towards safety, and there was no going back.
At present, the UK does not provide a legal route, by applying for a visa, to make a claim for protection, nor does it provide adequate resettlement for refugee family reunion. The only way to make a claim is to do so after arrival on British soil. It is therefore completely unsurprising that asylum seekers will take these terrible risks to reach the UK in order to lodge their claim.
The Government should listen to the evidence and recommendations from people who have experienced these terrible journeys and experts on humane and effective solutions to make refugee journeys safer.
Introducing a safe and legal route and assisting refugees to access it, is the only way to bring to an end the dangerous and inhumane traffic in small boats across the Channel. Empowering consular officials, rather than deploying the Royal Navy, is the better, cheaper and infinitely more humane solution.
3 Finally we would like to remind people of the immense positive contribution that past asylum seekers/ refugees have made to the British culture. [ eg Lord Maurice Saatchi and Charles Saatchi , Richard Rogers,Marc Chagall, Lucien Freud, Bob Marley,Sir Alec Issigonis -see here for a longer list ] A common sentiment that a lot of refugee’s express is that they chose to come to the United Kingdom because of its warmth, just, equal and fair treatment, and freedom of expression. These values are what the UK is known for throughout the world, and we must do our utmost to defend and maintain these moral standards for the future generations of our diverse, multi-cultural population by ensuring that we do not stigmatise these people who can make a big contribution to our country if given a chance.