Peter Phelps

Dunkirk in Normandy is synonymous with what Winston Churchill declared a miracle: the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops in 1940, aided by a volunteer navy of “little ships”. More than 80 Christmases have passed since those men waited shoulder-deep in water with nothing but hope to cling to. Today a few hundred refugees, mostly fleeing other conflicts, huddle in makeshift shelters along the same beaches, hoping to make the same risky Channel crossing. They are not heading home but desperate to find one; their little ships are an armada of inflatables, operated by criminal gangs motivated only by profit.

These are just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands fleeing to Europe each year. Some get lucky, others die, like Maryam Nuri Hamdamin, the young woman who drowned a month to the day before Christmas Eve along with 26 others. There have been recent deaths elsewhere. Ahmad al-Hasan was a nineteen-year-old Syrian man who drowned in October after being forced at gunpoint by a Belarussian soldier into a river bordering Poland. Just two names among the almost 40,000 who have perished along Europe’s borders since the 1990s. For most of us, they remain nameless, faceless statistics, at best given banal epitaphs, like the “one-year-old Syrian child” who froze to death in a Polish forest just a few days before the mass drowning in the Channel.

Some of the hostile responses to this very human tragedy raise real questions about the state of our political and moral discourse. Rather than a focus on the perils refugees face, the emphasis has been on the “threat” they pose us. Debate has raged in the Commons about the need to “push back” against “waves of illegal immigrants”, plans for harsher sanctions under the Borders Bill, and even demands to abandon our human rights obligations. Some in the media refuse to call out the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, over her baseless claim that the refugees’ motivations are “70 per cent economic”, while our own surveys show that public opinion is also divided.

Much of the rhetoric is shameful political point-scoring, which only stokes the fears of those who are genuinely concerned about the impact on their public services and communities. In reality, there’s no basis for claims that we face an escalating crisis. Asylum numbers are slightly up on last year, but annual net migration in 2020 fell by nearly 90% because of Covid. The numbers seeking asylum now are only around half that of twenty years ago. The claim that we are taking an unfair share is also false. According to the UN, Germany had over 122,000 applications for asylum last year, and France over 93,000. The UK had just 36,000, the seventeenth largest in Europe overall, per head of population.

Indeed, a closer look reveals a very different picture. This year around 23,000 refugees have tried to cross the Channel. Although this is a fraction of those entering other European countries, it’s significant compared to the overall number seeking asylum here. It highlights how difficult it is for refugees to enter legally, while reflecting Covid’s impact in reducing the numbers of those coming by safer means. Of those who do make it, around two thirds are eventually granted asylum, demolishing the argument that the majority are “not genuine asylum seekers”.

But just focusing on numbers only dehumanises migrants and ignores the moral dimensions of their plight. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams recently wrote in the New Statesman that: “Any defensible political morality must recognise that the securities and opportunities guaranteed to the citizens of any one nation are a mark of inalienable human dignity, not just privileges for those who happen to be born in the country.” It’s just such a moral code that led to the protections afforded refugees under the 1951 Convention, a UN treaty now flagrantly ignored by both the UK and the EU.

Officially, more than half of us still identify as Christian, and many more celebrate its festivals. In this sense, the Christmas story of the Holy Family’s forced migration to Egypt to avoid persecution is implicit to our moral culture. Perhaps it’s a good time to reflect on what our morals – or even ethics – around asylum are. Should we let desperate people drown trying to reach our shores? Can we turn a blind eye to a system that criminalises genuine refugees, houses them in squalid conditions, and separates families, leaving children prey to abuse? Do we accept our government’s dereliction of global leadership, in favour of tit-for-tat arguments with our neighbours?

The Home Office’s own data show that over 90 per cent of those seeking asylum come from countries where persecution and violent conflict are rife. When climate change is added to the mix, irregular migrations will only continue. No one would suggest there are easy solutions, or that we should just throw open our borders. But we should at least start from a place of compassion for those much more unfortunate than ourselves. It’s not about providing miracles, just acknowledging their shared humanity and their hopes for a better future.

Peter Phelps is Editor-in-Chief at Perspective

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