“We don’t see migration as a problem at all: we see people dying at sea as a problem and the existence of the mafias as a problem.” Such was the view expressed last week by Hana Jalloul, secretary of state for migration in Spain. Days earlier, more than 140 people had died off the coast of Senegal, after their ship caught fire and capsized, in the deadliest shipwreck recorded this year. Ms. Jalloul spoke of efforts to support the regional government of the Canary Islands, which is struggling to cope with the number of arrivals, and stressed her determination to combat organized crime. She also pointed to migrants’ crucial role in Spanish life, including as care workers during the pandemic.
British politicians could profit from studying her example in the aftermath of the drowning of a family of four Kurdish Iranians in the Channel. (A fifth member of the same family, aged 15 months, is missing and presumed dead.) Reports of the deaths of Rasul Iran Nezhad, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, and their children drew forth platitudes from the home secretary, Priti Patel, about “thoughts and prayers”. But nothing said by her or Boris Johnson did anything to dispel the impression that their attitude to people trying to reach the UK to seek asylum is chiefly antagonistic. While Ms. Patel repeated her opposition to “callous criminals exploiting vulnerable people”, there was no serious attempt to sympathize with the migrants’ desperation – or acknowledge that their reliance on smugglers is a matter not of an accident but of political choice.
On the contrary, recent weeks have seen Ms. Patel adopt extraordinarily hostile language towards lawyers representing migrants, as well as towards smugglers. A week ago, senior judges were among several hundred signatories to a letter complaining that her denunciation of “lefty lawyers” had put people at physical risk. The letter followed reports of a man charged with preparing an act of terrorism after attacking an immigration law firm’s office.
It isn’t too late for ministers to change course. The Labour peer Alf Dubs’ amendment to their immigration bill would allow unaccompanied children to be reunited with family in the UK after the transition period ends on 31 December. The UK’s refugee resettlement scheme must also be restarted as soon as the new lockdown ends. It was supposed to provide a safe way in for up to 5,000 of that fleeing persecution, but was suspended due to the pandemic.
It is right that those who profit from smuggling people across borders must be tackled. But it is cynical to portray the problem as one created by people smugglers while denying the need for viable options. Collapsing fish populations and the climate crisis are among reasons for increased migration from Senegal and the Sahel region of Africa. The war in Syria and ongoing violence in Iraq continue to force people to flee the Middle East. The victims of these disasters must not be blamed.
Responsible politicians would address the causes as well as symptoms. They would also keep a sense of proportion, and enjoin the public to do the same. The number of asylum applications in the UK (35,566 in 2019) is a small fraction of that in France and Germany; Turkey is home to around 4 million refugees. But again and again, the UK government chooses hostile posturing over rational policy based on international cooperation, respect for the law, and human rights. Could the deaths of three children lead Ms. Patel to give it a rest and listen to European politicians such as Ms. Jalloul, or even Lord Dubs? Don’t hold your breath.