‘Send them all back to France, they can claim asylum there.’ That’s the sentence I see a lot in local online forums or hear on the street when I talk to people about the recent news coverage of migrants and refugees arriving on Kent’s coast.
Last week in Kingsdown a boat with six Iranians washed up. I was on that beach later the same morning walking down from our cottage with my family whilst discussing what was happening. However, the news of people washing up on our beaches wasn’t making me angry, it was making me wonder, ‘why are they doing it?’
Theoretically Britain could send people back; the people who arrive on boats crossing the perilous channel could indeed be returned to France to claim asylum alongside the more than 100,000 that did so in 2017 (the last year we have recorded data for). In comparison, for the same time period, Britain recorded well under 30,000 asylum claims.
Yet France’s immigration system has huge problems and many of France’s cities offer only a ‘ghettoised‘ future for immigrants who finally get their papers. Furthermore, for those who do successfully claim asylum in France, the unemployment rate is 9.1%, over double the current unemployment rate in the UK. Those people crossing the channel in the past months are looking for safety and a sustainable future. They want to invest and grow in a country, not take out of it. They want to integrate with communities. They want to be able to give back to the country that offered them a hand. Wouldn’t we all look for the same if we were put in the horrendous position of having to leave our own homes for fear of our lives?
Then there’s the other thing I hear: ‘They aren’t real asylum seekers’. The truth is that around 75% of Iranians claiming asylum are currently judged to be in real, genuine need of asylum by Britain’s Home Office. So statistically the next Iranian migrant to wash up on the beaches of Kent (and I say Iranian, because the majority in recent months have been Iranian) is likely to be in real, genuine need of refuge. What are they fleeing: well, read up here, or here, or here.
I have also been disgusted by the way the language of war (‘invasion’, ‘the Dover front line’, ‘shoot them’, ‘sink them’) has been used in recent news coverage, forums and commentary on the arrivals on Kent’s beaches. This is the language of fear; it is the sort of language expected from the sort of country that builds walls. It the language of cheap, political propaganda, lacking in thought, humanity and kindness. Watching the UK’s Home Secretary suggest that recent arrivals’ claims for asylum would be rejected wholesale in order to ‘send a very strong message that [they] won’t succeed’ was watching a new incarnation of Trumpian, boorish behaviour in action on my own shores. I am clear: each and every claim must be dealt with on its own merits, in full accordance with international law.
I am very proud to be British and if the boats being put in the channel will save lives that’s a good thing; HMC Valient, currently being recalled from the Aegean, has been off Dover before. Of course, I think that those migrants who don’t have a successful claim to asylum should be sent back, but in the meantime whilst their applications are processed, let us not forget who we are, our country’s proud history of saving lives and offering refuge to those in genuine need and let’s banish the cheap rhetoric of fear and war. Many of the desperate people who undertake the journey across the channel are also victims of crime; it is the smuggling gangs that need to be broken, not the dreams of safety of the men, women and children risking their lives in the world’s busiest shipping lane, knowing full well how many others have died on that same route.
Those seeking asylum here are only given £37.50 a week, plus a place to live (often a hostel). They cannot work whilst the claim is being processed. This can take years. Years on £37.50 a week; that’s £1950 a year and far, far less than Job Seeker’s Allowance (also less than they get in France), whilst waiting for asylum claims. I’ve worked to help, and have seen, desperate people surviving on Asylum Support. I’ve sat next to people in tears, desperate to work, desperate to buy nappies for their babies, but having to choose between nappies and food. If you want to read about how people survive on their £37.50 a week, click here.
When I’m next on Kingsdown beach with my children, how will I explain to them just what lengths people go to in order to seek safety and to build a future for their own families? Certainly not with the language of war; rather I hope to explain that we are all human and that one way or another these people crossing the English Channel are in need and in fear.