The writer is Labour MP for Wigan and the shadow foreign secretary
Britain blames France. France blames Britain. But at least 27 people, two of them children, are dead. This is the worst, but not the only, incident of its kind since we started counting deaths in the Channel seven years ago.
While Franco-British relations descend into a public war of words, focusing on symptoms rather than causes, little is being done to address the true drivers of this humanitarian crisis. The situation in the Channel is just one manifestation of a global challenge: a world of 26m refugees, widespread conflict, dysfunctional diplomacy and populist politics.
With solidarity in desperately short supply, countries have sought to outdo each other with outlandish measures to deter desperate people. The EU pays countries to keep asylum seekers away. Australia sends them to distant islands to be processed. The UK government floated the idea of using wave machines to deter the boats. But, to the apparent surprise of the politicians who devise these schemes, still people move.
What is to be done? First, we should make it a priority to focus, together, on the unresolved conflicts and chronic instability that scars much of the world. Major, long-running conflicts have been parked in the “too difficult” box, while the UN struggles to raise the funds needed to sustain even basic humanitarian programmes. The main countries of origin of those arriving in Europe have all experienced recent or ongoing conflicts — countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan, to which the UK has recently slashed aid.
For as long as the world remains unable to co-operate to resolve these conflicts — like the Syrian war, now longer than both world wars combined — people will continue to move. Meanwhile, climate change will exacerbate and create new ones, as water and food become scarce in parts of the world that are heating up fastest. Without action from all governments, everywhere, millions will be forced to move.
Second, we need to work together on a plan to get help to the regions most affected by the movement of people. During the recent Afghan evacuation, as we tried to create safe routes out of the country, many Afghans headed to the border with Pakistan. But, as the Pakistani government explained to me, the country faced a challenging pandemic, with limited access to vaccines. While Boris Johnson’s government was asking them to add to the 1.4m refugees already in the country, he was also cutting the UK’s aid to Pakistan.
We should not forget that 85 per cent of refugees are hosted in developing countries. Leaving people to languish in refugee camps for decades creates the conditions in which they are prepared to stake everything, even life itself, on the prospect of a decent future.
Third, as Labour has urged, the UK should open up safe and legal routes which would undermine the people smugglers who make big money out of people’s despair — we should encourage other countries to do the same. On Thursday’s makeshift boat, which arrived in Dover, was an Afghan soldier who had lost any hope that safe and legal routes would open. A full three months after the prime minister promised to “move heaven and earth” to help Afghans in danger because of their support for Britain, the Afghan Resettlement Scheme hasn’t even opened.
The status quo benefits only two groups: the people smugglers and populist politicians the world over who have no interest in co-operating to solve big, complex problems of conflict, persecution and climate change. But while they refuse, the world is left with the consequences of war, climate change, mass displacement of people and the horror of children being allowed to drown on our shores. For as long as the blame game continues, so will the human misery, chaos and despair. They will get away with it only for as long as we let them.