Author: Ben Smoke
On Christmas Day 2015, Abdullah Kurdi delivered Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message. He was sat in his home, choking back tears and looking directly down the lens of the camera, pleading with the people of Britain to show humanity.
“At this time of year, I would ask you all to think about the pain of fathers, mothers and children who are seeking peace and security. We ask just for a little sympathy from you. I wish you a very happy new year, hopefully next year the war in Syria will be over and peace will reign across the Earth.”
Just three months earlier, attempting to escape devastating civil war in Syria, the boat he was on with his family collapsed, just five minutes into the crossing from Turkey to Greece. His wife and two children drowned. The next morning, his three-year-old son Alan washed up on a beach in Turkey. Pictures of his body were plastered across the world’s front pages. The shock, outrage and condemnation were universal. The time for action, it was agreed, was now.
Three Christmases later, at least five boats, many not much bigger than the one that carried the Kurdis, set out from northern France for Britain with around 40 people on board. Among them children and mothers from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, gripped with a desperation that most of us will, thankfully, never have to experience. It’s a desperation they share with the 280 people who have been rescued while attempting to cross the Channel since the start of November. One barely needs to check in order to know the reaction to these crossings.
Today, the front page of the Daily Telegraph reads “Send back migrants or risk tragedy”. The Conservative MP for Dover, Charlie Elphicke (who was only given his party whip back after allegations of sexual misconduct in the run-up to a crucial vote of no-confidence in Theresa May earlier this month), called for the government to “get a grip” on the situation. Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage tweeted on Boxing Day, asking “what is to stop thousands more coming?” if those who have arrived are allowed to claim asylum. Immigration minister Caroline Noakes has called the “incidents” “deeply concerning”, before asserting that some of the crossings were “facilitated by organised crime groups”. The reality though – the hardening of immigration policy across Europe, including our own hostile environment – has only exacerbated the situation.
The Windrush scandal, the toxic culture within the Home Office, the vindictive deportation of people despite court orders prohibiting it, the endemic violence within detention centres and the landmark rulings against its immigration policies all show that this is a government with a brutal, obsessive xenophobia deep in its core.
In the Telegraph, the ex-director general of immigration enforcement David Wood warned that there would be tragedy unless the government changed its policy of rescue and land. The thing is, he’s not wrong. His solution, of simply fishing people from the water and returning them to France, however, is. Leaving aside the impact of Brexit on the UK’s ability to “return” those seeking asylum to their country of first entry, if the last three years has proved anything, it’s that building walls or investing in immigration enforcement will not lead to lower immigration, but to more blood on our hands.
Notwithstanding our obligations to international treaties and agreements, we as a country have a duty to help, to house and to enable those seeking safety to find it. The well-worn claims that Britain is “full” of migrants taking our jobs and putting an unbearable strain on our welfare system have been proved to be nothing but dog-whistle nonsense over and over again. Even from a purely financial perspective, immigrants pay more in tax than they cost the Treasury. The United Kingdom is the seventh richest country in the world. It is a country with a colonial legacy still playing out across every continent. That some of those who reached Britain on Christmas Day are Iraqi and Afghani is no accident some 17 years since the invasion of Afghanistan.
We have reached a crunch point in our history and it is, without doubt, time to act. Last year, I was one of 15 people who blockaded a deportation charter flight at Stansted airport to thwart the deportations of those at real risk of persecution, violence, torture and death. Because of the action, 11 people are still in the country – at least two of whom have been given indefinite leave to remain. Our action was not, by any means, the only activism or action happening to end the hostile environment. Thousands of campaigners are working tirelessly across the country to end the horrors of our immigration system, but it is not enough.
It is time to create a fair system in which those who have a right and a need to claim refuge can do so safely. One that leaves behind the damaging rhetoric that has fuelled the current crisis, and stops treating those in desperate need or at dire risk of harm or death as someone to be stopped or handled – but as desperate people in need, worthy and deserving of our help.
If we don’t, it won’t be long before another parent is forced to grapple with images of their dead toddler across the front pages – only this time it will be the murky waters of the Channel lapping at the motionless body.
• Ben Smoke is a freelance journalist and activist. He is a member of the Stansted 15
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