The human cost of the government’s border policies has been made appallingly and painfully real: a 16-year-old boy from Sudan was found dead on a beach near Calais on Wednesday after trying to make it across the Channel. When people die trying to cross borders, the response from politicians is almost always the same: they say they are shocked and saddened and then carry on as usual. Yesterday was no different.
After spending weeks spreading anti-asylum myths, Priti Patel described his death as “upsetting” and “tragic”. But words of sympathy don’t make routes of travel safe or legal, or halt the policies that will resign so many others to the same fate. And recognising people’s humanity in death after stripping it from them in life is a hollow and dangerous performance of care while legislating cruelty.
For years, the evidence has been clear. Border policies are the problem; safe and legal routes are one of the solutions. These deaths are avoidable, but still politicians push on with making it near-impossible for people to get to the UK, knowing full well that most people have to be here to submit their asylum application and that most will have no choice but to make life-threatening journeys to do so. The government creates this situation, then tries to make political capital out of it.
If the Conservatives are not stigmatising migrants, they’re blaming smugglers, who are framed as a suitably vague but wicked group that can be held responsible for the entirety of the problem. Following the line taken by many of her predecessors, Patel described the boy’s death as “a brutal reminder of the abhorrent criminal gangs and people smugglers who exploit vulnerable people”. The message is clear: they are the “criminals” and stopping them is the only solution.
But the government is quite literally creating the conditions in which smugglers are needed. Or to borrow the logic of the good free marketeer: there is supply where there is demand. Their business model is only possible because of borders politicians reinforce; the people who use smugglers are made vulnerable by government’s immigration policies.
“It is certainly true that smugglers profit from the desperation of others,” write journalists Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano in their book about people smuggling, “but it is also true that in many cases smugglers save lives, create possibilities and redress global inequalities.” This isn’t to excuse the damage done by smugglers or to ignore the clear evidence of abuse, but to situate this in its broader context: where governments have shut down safe and legal routes, many people often have no other option. No one would choose to pay huge amounts of money to make a dangerous journey in a dinghy if they could pay much less to board a ferry.
Many of the people who are trying to get to the UK from France are likely to have crossed thousands of miles of land and sea to make it that even that far. Another step in that journey is not taken lightly. As journalist Daniel Trilling points out, that long, arduous and treacherous journey can’t all be explained by the “smuggler” narrative. As if to prove this point, the boy and the friend he was travelling with are thought not to have used smugglers – despite Patel’s words. These two children tried to make it across alone, in an inflatable dinghy, using shovels for oars.
Britain’s debate about migration is never allowed to approximate the truth. Instead, it revolves around nonsensical pull factors that unfairly describe people making that crossing as out for what they can get. So we have to patiently explain that these people are human beings, and to encourage others to imagine if it were them: what it would be like to flee your country because of war or persecution, crises in which the UK itself often play a role; what it would be like to get so close to a country where your family or friends are, only to be told you have to stay put and be thankful you are “safe”.
Governments make borders more difficult to cross and people continue to die trying. How damning that we’re still here, labouring these same points after years. Alan Kurdi, the Essex 39, Mohammed Ayaz, Masoud Niknam, Mitra Mehrad and the many others who go barely noticed: when these people make newspaper headlines, sadness is fleeting, while the same anti-asylum, anti-migrant rhetoric and policies remain constant. Some people, including the vast majority who are trying to cross the Channel now, are trying to apply for asylum. Others are classed as “migrants”, trying to escape poverty in a world that makes that impossible if you don’t have enough money or the “right” passport.
This didn’t start with this government. New Labour boasted of being tougher on asylum and immigration than the Conservatives, and passed five migration-related bills between 1997 and 2008, each focused on making it more difficult for refugees and immigrants to live in Britain. Neither does this only happen in the UK: look at the Mediterranean, the US-Mexico border and other crossings around the world – this week at least 55 people, among them five children, died off the coast of Africa while trying to make it to Europe.
Every politician who has defended and “strengthened” borders is complicit in forcing people to risk their lives. They dehumanise people to justify treating them this way. And then they act sad and shocked when their strategies play out to their horrible, inevitable conclusions.
More will die like this. More children. More adults. It does not have to be this way; movement can be made safe, legal and easy. But the change has to begin with recognising that borders are the problem, not the solution.
•Maya Goodfellow is a writer and academic, and the author of Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats