by Nicki Jameson
August 2020 saw a renewed racist furore whipped up by the gov–ernment, far right parties and sensationalist media, as 1,450 asylum seekers arrived by sea in southern England from northern France.
This year to date, approximately 5,000 people seeking asylum have crossed the Channel in small boats. with the highest number coming during the fine weather of early August, including 235 people on 6 August. The overwhelming majority completed the crossing safely; however, on 19 August the body of Abdulfatah Hamdallah was found washed up on the beach at Sangatte, after he and a friend attempted to cross the Channel in a flimsy boat, using shovels as paddles.
Although in June this year the British ruling class and its supporters had celebrated the 80th anniversary of the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’, which rescued stranded British troops during World War II, the sight of this fresh landing of little boats from Europe sent them into paroxysms of racist rage. At the same time, the focus provided a welcome diversion for the government from its disastrous mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, the economy and Brexit. True to form, Nigel Farage, Britain First and a host of other undesirables immediately took the bait, with Farage declaring ‘an invasion’ and far right groups organising demonstrations in Dover and targeting hotels which they believed were being used as emergency accommodation for asylum seekers.
Meanwhile, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, appointed a ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’ to undertake the task of ‘making the Channel route unviable for small boat crossings’, and announced she would be asking the Royal Navy to patrol the Channel to prevent the boats getting into British waters and the Royal Air Force to police the area from the skies, despite these measures being either unlawful or impractical. Undaunted, Patel is now taking advice from recently arrived migrant to Britain, misogynist and racist former Australian Prime Minster Tony Abbott, who introduced Australia’s lethal ‘push back’ policy in which boats carrying migrants were blocked from entering the country’s waters.
Despite the recent increase in numbers, total arrivals across the Channel remain a small proportion of overall immigration to Britain. In 2019, 677,000 people moved to live here, under all types of migration scheme, and during the past year there were approximately 36,000 asylum applications (compared to 165,615 in Germany, 151,070 in France, 117,800 in Spain and 77,275 in Greece in the same period). The rise in boat crossings as a method of entry is largely in response to the stringent measures which have been implemented over the past 20 years by successive British governments to prevent migrants from crossing in lorries and cars, including tight security at the port of Calais and massive fines for hauliers who knowingly or unknowingly transport migrants.
Those who successfully cross from France to Britain hope their arrival will be the end of their long and arduous journeys from Africa, Asia or the Middle East, through Europe to a camp on the French coast, and will signal the start of a new life. However, the uncertainty and trauma are not over, and asylum seekers immediately have to contend with insecure housing, little money and no permission to work to earn any, as well as with the threat of harassment to the point of physical violence from the far right. All this is accompanied by the ever-present prospect of detention in an immigration prison such as Yarl’s Wood, and deportation back either to their country of origin, or to the first European country they are thought to have arrived in, under the legal framework of the Dublin III Regulations between European states.
Not content with her current legal powers to detain and deport, Priti Patel is working on a new ‘fair borders bill’, to be introduced later this year, which will insist that asylum seekers declare all their grounds for refugee status when they first apply, and prevent them from adding any new reasons later in the process.
The migrants arriving in Britain by boat, just like those arriving by any other means of travel, have left their home countries for many different reasons. In addition to war, persecution and poverty, climate change and environmental destruction are increasingly also causes of migra-tion. As an imperialist country, Britain is a player in all these causes, and as internationalists and socialists living in that imperialist country, we offer our solidarity to all those seeking sanctuary here. An injury to one is an injury to all.