Refugees dying in the channel for Brexit and the red wall?

Dave Kellaway reports on the recent tragedy in the channel and why the Tories 'hostile environment' will probably lead to more needless deaths.


Watching the news and listening to the politicians you would think that the 27 people who drowned horribly in an icy Channel were part of a ‘human tragedy’ caused by ‘monstrous’ people smugglers. The pundits pontificate and speculate about the spats between the British and French governments over the details of tweets and non-invitations.  Priti Patel is given a full page in the Sun newspaper today to argue for more policing and further deepening the hostile environment for migrants and refugees. 

They all say it is an incredibly complex problem. No, it isn’t. The only reason there is a booming market for gangs of people smugglers is that both the British and French governments do not implement UN and humanitarian guidelines for accepting asylum seekers. In other words, the squalid camps near Calais or Dunkirk could end tomorrow and the crossings cease if the Home Office sent a team over and set up an office to process and fast track refugee applications. It would not even cost a fraction of the money handed over to the Tories’ business mates for Covid PPE or test and trace. Forty-eight years ago a Labour government mobilised along with the labour movement to welcome around 3000 refugees fleeing Pinochet’s fascist coup in Chile. In 1972 Ted Heath’s Tory government took in 30,000 Uganda Asians fleeing Idi Amin’s repression. Priti Patel’s parents were among them. So why is the government allowing people to die needlessly in the Channel today?

Since the 1970s and the long series of defeats and setbacks for the labour movement and working people the whole centre of gravity of politics here and in France has moved to the right. Margret Thatcher the then British Prime Minister materially destroyed workers’ jobs and their communities. Boris Johnson has successfully carried through a right-wing Brexit project where he absorbed the more extreme right-wing UKIP party supporters. Aided and abetted by a compliant mass media the idea that there are ‘too many migrants’, that we ‘don’t have any more space or jobs’, that ‘migrants are taking jobs and depressing wages’ or that ‘people’s security is threatened by migrants’ have all become part of a ‘common sense’ mass ideology. The fact that Labour totally adapted to a large part of this ideology – remember the mugs with the controlling immigration slogan- has contributed to the difficulties of challenging these reactionary policies.

Johnson’s election win in 2019 – particularly in the so-called ‘red wall’ seats was to a large degree due to the anti-migrant Brexit project. Despite all the pious hand wringing about the human tragedy this week, the Tories will not entertain any relaxation of their hostile environment policies because they want to sustain the successful electoral bloc they created in 2019.

Labour’s official spokespeople have wrung their hands a bit more strongly but nowhere have we heard a clear statement from them saying we should set up channels to immediately welcome the refugees. Their response has been to accuse the Tories of ‘losing control’ and failing to competently work with the French. Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party on the November 19 Today BBC programme focussed on this lack of control rather than defending migrants or refugees. A letter protesting this stance has been put together by Another Europe is Possible, see here. The only progressive crumb we heard from Labour was to float the Dubs amendment on welcoming child refugees. Up to now, that policy has failed completely. Officially Labour has kept well away from the solidarity demonstrations organised this week by migrant support organisations, anti-racist campaigns and the radical left.

If you look at the nationality of most refugees in the channel and at Calais, one common thread leaps out at you. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan and Somalia – all current or recent war zones and where Western powers like Britain and France have actively intervened to defend the interests of capital against the peoples living there. Indeed you have the brutal irony of some Tories complaining in the Sunday Telegraph that the government is failing to honour its commitments to Afghani employees and contractors by failing to facilitate their transfer to Britain after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. At the same time, other Tory MPs are raging that Patel is not being tough enough.

President Macron in France has also gone along with the shift to the right and hard right in France. An outright fascist, Zemmour, and the hard-right Le Pen who share a virulent anti-migrant, anti-Islam discourse are currently on more than 35% in the opinion polls. The LICRA human rights organisation last week released a big opinion poll they commissioned which shows 69% of French people thought there were too many migrants and even 50% believed in the bogus ‘replacement’ theory where the native white French population will be substituted by an Islamic majority by 2050. Big numbers also linked rises in crime and a sense of insecurity with the increase in immigration.

Britain in fact has taken in far fewer refugees than France – about 3 to 4 times less. The number of people coming this year, of around 25,000, is much less than the 60,000 who arrived in Italy. Merkel’s Germany took in a million asylum seekers in a short period a few years ago. Nobody has noticed a collapse in German society or in their economy. Countries like Turkey, Pakistan or Iraq which are close to the war zones actually take millions of refugees. Another irony pointed out by liberal journalist Simon Jenkins in the Guardian is that at the very time the government is obsessed with stopping boats in the channel, filled with mostly young skilled men, the country is suffering a jobs’ shortage in many areas.

Baran Nouri Mohammedameen, also known as Mariam, was trying to join up with her fiancé

Thankfully at least this week the 27 drowned refugees are not totally nameless or faceless. Baran Nouri Mohammedameen, also known as Mariam, was trying to join up with her fiancé who is already in Britain. The ubiquity of mobile phones means we have the video of her engagement party, her farewell embrace with her brother at the airport and the devastating screenshot of her GPS position forever stuck in the middle of the channel as her partner monitored her progress. Whether this makes any difference to mainstream opinion or to politicians’ cynical manipulation of the issue is another matter.

We have to do everything we can to combat the pernicious anti-migrant ideology which permeates all parties. Inside the Labour Party, we need to get local parties and activists to take a principled stance in support of asylum and for welcoming migrants.

Join the local and national campaigns mobilising in response to the latest emergency:

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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