Petty Politics Hampers Efforts to Stem the Tide of Desperate People Crossing the English Channel

Britain & France play political games with migrants lives.

The English Channel is one of the busiest and most dangerous shipping lanes in the world.

Speaking on BBC news channel Sunday morning, French political commentator Agnes Poirer suggested that Priti Patel’s invite to the joint meeting of foreign ministers in Calais on Sunday 28th November was withdrawn because of Boris Johnson’s decision to make public his letter to French President Emmanuel Macron.

In suggesting that Johnson’s methods were ‘not serious’ and should therefore be treated not seriously, Macron said, “We do not communicate from one leader to another on these issues by tweets and letters that we make public. We are not whistleblowers. Come on. Come on.”

Okay, that may be so, but it is well known that Boris Johnson is not the most tactful of politicians. His blustering, often blundering, scuffed footsteps have left deep, often wounding impressions all over the delicate borders of British diplomacy of late. Macron knows this as well as the next man, so to feign such wounded surprise at Johnson’s actions merely highlights how shallow French intentions are on this matter despite Macron’s protests and his all too ‘serious’ approach.

And this storm in a teacup sums up Anglo-French relations at the moment. This shallow, insipid game of cut and thrust, parry and riposte, is typical of this peripatetic relationship that slips and slides and skirts round the issues as a way of deferring action that may damage their respective domestic standings.

And all the while people are dying in the most horrific, excruciating ways as both sides in this ridiculous row seem intent on playing politics, pointing the finger and not tackling the problem at hand.

After reading the letter in question, which to my mind says nothing untoward and certainly does not leak any highly sensitive secrets, I’m left baffled by the response of the French. After all, what’s wrong with making this public? Does the public not have a right to know what is being proposed?

The only remotely controversial part of said letter being that Johnson suggested that any people making it across the Channel by boat should be returned to France. This is apparently unacceptable to France, and this is wholly understandable. Britain lost the legal right to return people following Brexit despite the fact that Patel had a verbal agreement made with her Dutch counterpart Ankie Broekers-Knol to do just that, both considering this as being the best way to break the people smugglers business model.

That aside, the fact remains that the vast majority of those risking life and limb to get to Britain are genuine refugees and therefore qualify for refugee status, a matter that Britain seems to have conveniently glossed over.

So Johnson could have been more diplomatic, but take him to account in person if you feel that strongly about it; don’t take the football away because the other team isn’t playing by your rules. It’s just petty, childish and irresponsible, and just stinks to high heaven of political football and campaign rhetoric in what is, after all, a French election year.

On French TV, government spokesperson Gabriel Attal called Johnson’s letter “mediocre in terms of the content, and wholly inappropriate as regards the form.”

So to criticise another political figurehead in public is acceptable, but to publish a letter is not?

And this pathetic political wrangling and battle of insignificant words takes place as yet more people risk their lives in the busiest sea lanes in the world, both sides playing to their respective galleries as the freezing waters of the channel invite yet more tragedy, yet more desperation, yet more heart stopping swells.

Stories of tragedy and triumph are part and parcel of the journey for many people as they flee persecution, war, the ravages of climate change, economic deprivation or any combination of these factors.

The Polish-Belarus border is an inhuman, violent place.

Last weeks tragedy dominated the news across the UK and the EU once again. Whether it was the wholly preventable deaths of the 27 people (thought to be Iraqi Kurds) whose flimsy dinghy capsized not far from the French coast of Calais, plunging the men, women and children into the icy, grey, Wintry and, in this case, deadly waters of the English Channel, or whether it’s those poor frozen wretches stuck in no mans land between the callous,cold and unwelcoming borders of Belarus and the EU’s Polish extremity, people on the move across the globe are experiencing just how hollow and empty ring the promises of Western politicians everywhere who pay lip service and no more to basic human rights.

(And this is without even mentioning the awful treatment by ICE and US officialdom generally with respect to Central and South American people seeking asylum and a new life in the US. This is a step too far for this post because if I start on this I will never stop!)

Dignity, respect, kindness and the warmth of welcome are in short supply as the rich West battens down the hatches and turns their back on the people who are paying the price for our industrialisation, our conflicts, our unquenchable desire for more, and yet more again than we already have.

As the Omicron Covid variant emerges in Southern Africa; a direct consequence of low vaccination rates — due to the West’s selfish me, me, me attitude and the horribly evident vaccine inequality that results — and the spread of weaponised, misinformation on social media — because the tech giants deem profits to be more important than the lives of poor, uneducated people round the other side of the world — the politics of us and them is becoming all too clear.

And it stinks.

In the end the Sunday meeting saw representatives of France, Germany, the Netherlands and the EU commission agree to the addition of another plane to patrol France’s northern beaches to help spot the boats before they get underway, as well as the addition of further surveillance drones and a greater Frontex border police presence.

Something is better than nothing they say!

Speaking after the meeting EU commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said that, “We need to work together with the UK to address this of course,” to ensure that there is adequate sharing of intelligence and relevant information as well as a common approach to the treatment of the criminal gangs themselves.

All this is true enough, but all made infinitely harder by the mystifying decision to keep Britain out of the loop at this vital stage.

Britain and France need to work together, to put aside these ridiculous differences and start dealing with the problem in a more realistic and thoughtful way. As the French have repeatedly said Britain needs to do more to process asylum applications in France (or elsewhere in the EU) so that people who do have a genuine claim to be afforded asylum can register before they reach the beaches of France.

This more than anything would remove much of the ‘traffic’ from the hands of the criminal gangs.

Since Brexit, and certainly since the start of the pandemic, Britain has had a severe labour shortage that could, in part, be remedied by taking in more genuine asylum seekers many of whom are no doubt intelligent, well educated persons.

But the handbrake seems to be on for no good reason…

Britain takes proportionately far less than most EU nations, and net migration to the UK has fallen dramatically over the last few years.

It makes complete sense all round if Britain were to take in more genuine asylum seekers. And yet, the government seems stuck on resisting the obvious to keep on living with labour shortages that have caused such disasters as the recent fuel pump outages that saw many people, including emergency workers, unable to get to work. And all for the want of more truck drivers!

And still the hungry, desperate people on French beaches still jump into boats, still brave the driving rain and the boiling, stormy Winter seas of the Channel when legally, many may actually have a genuine case to be granted entry to Britain.

It baffles me! Really it does!

Common sense plays no part here. All parties concerned seem content to play politics when some ready solutions lie close at hand.

This argument is highly simplified, I accept that. It is a complex situation that requires complex solutions to fix the problem in its entirety.

There are, no doubt, some travellers who do not qualify and they pose a problem, of that there is no doubt. But for those who are in genuine need of protection and asylum this madness should end and that is the simple part of the solution and it can be in place, working and not only saving, but improving lives with little very thought and effort.

All it needs is some straight talking, some measure of common sense and a whole heap of empathy. Please, let’s start to help and not hinder.

Christmas is coming after all…

A Note On Terminology

There is much debate these days on social media about the terms or descriptions used to label the people making these endlessly dangerous treks across Europe in search of safety and a place to call home. Terms commonly used in the media and on social media include:

Migrant, Asylum Seeker, Refugee & Internally Displaced Persons.

Whilst some seem to be upset by the usage of these terms they are in fact all legal international definitions for people who are at various stages of homelessness or migration/on the move. As it happens I am myself a migrant, many times over and have no problem at all owning it. It is often the stigma that is attached to these labels that hurts. That said, using the correct definition where at all possible is advised.

For a detailed discussion on these definitions and their legal application please listen to:

War and Peace podcast from the International Crisis Group, S3, E3. The migration lessons of Afghanistan & Syria, with guest Liz Collett, Senior Adviser to the Director of the Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Also, for a broader discussion see The Compass from BBC World Service podcasts, Nov 10th 2021. Who is a Refugee?

For my part, in the above (sub-title apart) I have refrained from using any of these terms since the legal status of the people concerned is undetermined and I do not wish to saddle anyone, let alone people who have already endured so much, with any label that may be incorrect or potentially derogatory to their survivability and/or continued life journey.

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Peter Winn-Brown

Peter Winn-Brown

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Sports nut with a penchant for international politics & affairs, history and the West's turbulent relationship with Islam.