English Channel refugee crisis: How UK government can dramatically reduce the number of people risking their lives to reach Britain – Ian Swanson

No-one wants a repeat of last week's tragedy when 27 people desperately trying to reach the UK died in the icy waters of the Channel after their flimsy boat capsized.
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Yet despite the terrible risks, overcrowded inflatables supplied by people-smugglers are continuing to set off on the perilous crossing.

And the British government's response so far seems to be to blame the French, make unrealistic demands that France takes back anyone who makes it to the UK, and pursue new laws which campaigners warn will only make the situation even worse.

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Analysis using Home Office data suggests two-thirds of those crossing the Channel in small boats are officially judged to be genuine refugees and are allowed to stay. But despite the UK helping to draw up the international treaty setting out the rights of refugees, the current government’s policy appears based on the premise that refugees coming to this country is something to be prevented.

At the moment, there is virtually no legitimate way for refugees to get here, apart from a few resettlement schemes offering limited places to people from countries like Syria or Afghanistan. Asylum applications must be made in the UK, yet it is impossible for those seeking asylum to come.

The blunt truth is the UK has left refugees turning to the UK for protection with little choice but to risk their lives by climbing aboard these dangerous vessels.

And now legislation going through Westminster proposes to penalise those who do not arrive by an approved route. The system would become focused not on the plight of those escaping war and persecution but on how they got to the UK.

Despite last week's tragedy, desperate people continue to set sail across the Channel (Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)Despite last week's tragedy, desperate people continue to set sail across the Channel (Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)
Despite last week's tragedy, desperate people continue to set sail across the Channel (Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)
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The Law Society has said it believes the Nationality and Borders Bill is incompatible with the UK's obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which this country helped draft.

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But that has done nothing to persuade the UK government to think again.

Instead it seems determined to extend its notorious "hostile environment" approach to men, women and children who are fleeing for their lives.

The government talks about the current system being "overwhelmed" but in fact the UK has far fewer refugees than Germany, France or many other European countries.

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There are many reasons why people might seek safety here rather than elsewhere. Home Office research found the most common included having family members here already, being able to speak English and – perhaps ironically – the UK’s reputation for upholding human rights.

The oft-repeated suggestion that refugees should seek asylum from the first safe country they arrive in might suit Britain well, but has no logic to it. It is an attempt to shift the whole burden onto countries like Italy and Greece simply because they are the major landing points in the Mediterranean and would conveniently allow Britain to escape responsibility because it is on the edge of Europe.

An immediate way of reducing the numbers trying to cross the Channel would be to establish a system where asylum applications to the UK could be processed in France.

The solution does not lie in increased patrols on French beaches or tougher laws at Westminster. In the end, it lies in a compassionate response to some of the world’s most desperate people by offering them a safe way of coming here.

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