Irish Times view on Channel refugee deaths: a shared responsibility

Calamitous outcome to trade in misery sparks renewed debate within Fortress Europe

Protesters hold placards to demonstrate against the British government’s policy on immigration and border controls. Photograph: Daniel Leal / AFP via Getty Images)

Protesters hold placards to demonstrate against the British government’s policy on immigration and border controls. Photograph: Daniel Leal / AFP via Getty Images)

 

The death of 27 refugees in the Channel was a calamity waiting to happen. The tragedy has sparked furious recrimination, primarily and rightly, against people smugglers making a fortune out of misery and desperation.

But the deaths have also reprised long-running, toxic debates within Fortress Europe and the UK. They relate to sharing responsibility for the tide of misery that has swept the continent from the wars and social crises on its borders and, specifically, the humane treatment of victims; most crucially, over the distinction between asylum seekers and economic migrants and the idea that they deserve a different response.

Nearly 26,000 people are estimated to have successfully crossed the Channel in small boats in 2021, more than three times the 2020 number. The result has been a substantial growth in asylum requests – between July and September, 15,104 applications, 60 per cent up on the same quarter in 2020.

The obligation to consider asylum requests was established in the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Like Ireland, Britian accepts that it must share in the protection of victims of war and persecution, estimated at the end of 2020 at 26.4 million externally displaced refugees, 86 per cent living in countries neighbouring their country of origin. The convention also recognises that those fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means to escape and claim asylum in another country. But there is no legal way to travel to the UK for that specific purpose.

Last month, Home Secretary Priti Patel claimed 70 per cent of those travelling to the UK across the Channel were “not genuine asylum seekers” and her government was concentrating on “creating safe passage for genuine refugees”. However, a recent report from the UK’s Refugee Council found that for the top 10 countries of origin, 61 per cent of initial asylum application decisions in relation to refugees arriving by small boat in the 18 months to June 2021 would have resulted in protection being granted. But, as the report highlights, there are extremely limited “safe routes” available to cross the Channel.

And, contrary to public perceptions, the number of asylum applications received by the UK remains well below other European countries. In the year to June, Germany received 113,625 applications and France, 87,180. UK politicians are reluctant to acknowledge that reality, still haunted by a Brexit debate which had much to do with misguided perceptions of mass immigration.

Although a crackdown on traffickers is certainly necessary, the UK must also work, as Patel promised, to honour its international obligation to asylum seekers, and to European “partners”, by creating real “safe routes” to its shores. Ireland too must live up to its corresponding responsibilities.

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