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Calais: How many people will we let die in the English Channel?

Clare Moseley is the founder of the charity organization Care4Calais. 

CALAIS, France — This week’s tragedy in which 27 people lost their lives crossing the English Channel may have shocked people around the world, but I have a secret fear that it could lead to something worse: that it could happen again, and that we could get used to it.

Europe now appears to have simply accepted that a large number of people drown unnecessarily in the Mediterranean. Is it possible that Britain, once hailed as a bastion of democracy and human rights, will come to accept a similar horrific fate in the English Channel?  

Those of us who are aware of the conditions in northern France tried to sound the alarm earlier this fall; we spoke out, we organized demonstrations, we campaigned. We saw some of the public take note, but attention from media outlets dwindled. By last week, individual drownings, babies being pulled from the freezing water were meriting merely a couple of lines in print, if that.

A larger tragedy was both predictable and predicted.

People in northern France seeking safety in the United Kingdom have been taking increasingly risky journeys, be it on overcrowded boats organized by people smugglers, or in flimsy dinghies or kayaks they have bought themselves. 

And gradually, the number of people lost has grown and grown. Five had been confirmed dead, five unrecovered and many hundreds rescued since September alone. We will never fully know how many more have been washed out into the North Sea. We only know of the fatalities from Wednesday because the bodies were accidentally found by a fisherman.

But these crossings, like people smuggling, are symptoms of a larger underlying problem: The people in northern France want to claim asylum in the U.K. However, they can only do so if they are physically present on U.K. soil. And with no way of getting here, they then risk their lives in small boats, or stow away in lorries, to try to cross the Channel.

This is fundamentally unjust. Asylum seekers, by definition, are fleeing the very gravest dangers in the world. They have survived bloody conflicts, lost family to bombs or famine, and some have been tortured and suffered the most horrific abuse. Having escaped such conditions, the very last thing they should have to do is risk their lives once again in the pursuit of freedom and safety.

This problem can be fixed, and further deaths avoided — all quite easily. All that is needed is a system whereby people can claim U.K. asylum without the need to risk their lives. 

One option would be initial screenings in France to see if someone is likely to have a viable asylum claim. And then, if they do, they could be safely transferred to the U.K., where their claim would be fairly heard. 

This would also achieve what the U.K. government says it wants — it would put people smugglers out of business overnight. The lack of an effective system is what makes this business thrive. Create a safe and legal route, and people smugglers would disappear.

More importantly, it would save lives.

Journalists have asked me about what would then happen to the people who are told they do not have a chance, and so would not be transferred to the U.K. Would they not still try to use an illegal route? The facts suggest not. Some 98 percent of people who cross the Channel on small boats submit an asylum claim upon arrival in the U.K. This is entirely in line with what people tell us on the ground.

The reason these people make the crossing is that they are searching for a better life. They want safety, security, to build a brighter future . . . Without that possibility, it is unlikely they would risk their lives. If there is no chance of ever living a safe and legal life, the incentive is removed.

One might ask why the U.K. government doesn’t then consider such an obvious option. The answer to that is entwined with another key question that urgently needs to be asked.

Right now, the U.K. takes in fewer refugees than many of its European neighbors. In 2020, for example, Germany registered over 100,000 asylum applications, Spain about 86,000, France 81,000 and the U.K. just 29,000. Yet people in the U.K. are no less compassionate than citizens of other countries, and we do care about the terrible plight of refugees. In 2020, we welcomed 65,000 people from Hong Kong without issue. 

Another 30,000 refugees will not make our island sink. The question is why exactly, when the U.K. already takes so few refugees, is our government so determined that we take none at all? 

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