I had a lovely holiday in Dungeness, it’s a bleak mostly unspoilt spit of land made up mainly from pebbles. I found it beautiful but it’s a harsh environment and the shifting tides bring more and more stones and pebbles to the beach, so much so that apparently old Dungeness residents (and there can’t be many of those what with all those fishing shacks bought and made into desirable Airbnbs) say you’ll be walking to France at the rate it’s going. That’s why it is probably the nearest you could get to France and why refugees (who have given thousands of pounds to people smugglers who put them into flimsy wooden unseaworthy boats or, even worse, flimsy plastic blow-up boats and point them in the direction of England) often end up beaching their tiny boats in Dungeness. They’re then bussed to god knows where to start their asylum processes.
On our holiday we didn’t see any individuals coming up the beach from the sea but twice we saw a coach parked by the Lifeboat station. Those coaches would only be there for that purpose.
I wonder how many of you reading this have seen the English Channel and crossed it by ferry? Going to France for me always used to mean going by ferry as we took the car and drove on from the port to our destination. Flying wasn’t really an option until, that is, a friend of ours living in France moved to Toulouse so now we fly.
Going by ferry can take you not more than an hour if you go via Dover but more often we went from Newhaven to Dieppe and that takes 4 hours, then there are the ones from Portsmouth and Plymouth which take far longer. Some of these are overnight and you can book a cabin and try to sleep but a cruise experience it is not, the cabins are basic as is the food. And here’s the thing, when the seas are flat it’s fine, but when it’s not this 21-mile stretch of water can be a right bastard.
I remember one trip when the wind was quite lively at the start of our crossing. The kids were young so after a meal and a brisk walk round the decks where we could see the white horses topping the waves we decided to watch a film. It was one of those Police Academy films and it lasted over two hours with much action and car chases with cars with screaming wheels twisting and turning through narrow streets. As we were watching we felt our chairs turn and move with the cars, yes, we swayed with the cars as they sped round the streets – it was exciting. But at the end of the film, oh, wait a minute, our chairs continued to sway from side to side! There was a huge wind and the ship was tossing and rolling about like a milk bottle in a sink.
Oh.My.Word. We staggered away from the cinema to find the outer doors lashed shut with rope and the floors awash with vomit. There was a lot of movement. We were nearing Newhaven harbour and have you ever watched seamen looking worried and anxious? I was never more scared as we approached, or rolled, into the harbour and made it to calmer waters. It was the look on the seamen’s faces more than anything. The English Channel is not a pleasant place to be if you’re in a large seaworthy ferry, think of how it must be when refugees sit packed in their tiny fragile boats. Yes, they try to come when the sea is flat but the journey of twenty-one miles takes you a long, long way from land.
Last week twenty seven people perished in the English Channel, including children and a pregnant woman in the worst incident on this patch of water since traffickers began using it a few years ago. In a boat so flimsy it was apparently similar to a blow-up paddling pool. If anyone even begins to say to you, they shouldn’t have tried, they shouldn’t have put themselves into that danger in the first place, all the refugee charities say that the people who get into those boats are desperate and are sometimes forced into those boats by these traffickers. No one would do it, in their right mind, it is so dangerous.
Twenty seven people including women and children. So no, they’re not all men and by the way, they are not all economic migrants. I mean what is wrong with being an economic migrant anyway? Surely, it means that this person wants to work and make a better life – well, good for them. It is not as though we have an overabundance of HGV drivers, or carers, or NHS staff or hospitality staff, or food preparation workers, or seasonal farm workers or pickers of fruit and vegetables. But no, they can’t even work whilst waiting for their applications to be processed. Anyway, most of these people are fleeing conflict, war and torture. They’re Kurds from Iran, they’re from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, and now more and more from Afghanistan. If the West doesn’t give aid to Afghanistan there will be a famine and deaths will occur, yes we might have to negotiate with the Taliban,but do you want more and more Afghans fleeing from their country? Actually, do you remember that after the Second World War, refugees were called Displaced Persons? Who were all eventually resettled. So why are we not more helpful and welcoming?
For instance, did you know that 75% of the people who arrive on our shores are accepted as asylum seekers, so if you hear a politician saying they are not seeking asylum realise that this is a lie. Because above all they fear for their lives. And we make their lives so hard by first of all cutting off all safe routes to the UK and then if they make it to our shores and many, of course, do we make their lives as miserable as possible. And these are people who have suffered enough.
And why to these shores rather than the first country they manage to get to? Because many have links to this country, they speak English, they have relatives here. And actually we take so few in comparison to other countries. In proportion to its population the UK ranks 16th in Europe for asylum applications. Furthermore 86% of all refugees live in countries neighbouring to their country of origin. The UK is home to approx. 1% of the 26.4 million refugees, forcibly displaced across the world.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t bear reading about their travails. However, instead of wringing my hands and burying my head in the sand because, I, safe and sound in my little warm flat, don’t like hearing of the reality of their suffering. Let’s ask – what can be done? Here are some pointers that I’ve picked up from my reading:
Instead of ideas about pushing the boats back – literally – with some ridiculous wave machine. I mean, just imagine that, the waves already there are quite enough, and yes it was considered by our government ….as an idea…. what idiots!
So instead of wave machines or more British troops sent to France to man the beaches, another idea proposed that sounds rather like Trump’s wall! The thing to do is, ask why are these people paying thousands of pounds to people smugglers and getting on those boats. And the answer is there are virtually no legal routes to get to the UK, so there need to be legal refugee settlement schemes and safe routes for these people.
Indeed could not all the refugees in those dreadful camps in Calais and Dunkirk be processed in France? Remember 75% are given asylum once they reach the UK. Apparently there are UK officials staffing something in France (not sure what) but there needs to be a more proactive UK system in France where refugees can register their asylum claim and then be brought to England on a ferry. That would, at a stroke, put a stop to much of the criminal activity of the traffickers and significantly reduce the numbers travelling to the UK on those dreadful boats.
And might it not be a good idea to solve some of those dreadful international conflicts? No-one wants to leave their country. It is a devastating decision to make. Some of these wars and conflicts and failing states are indeed caused by Western meddling. We should mop up the mess we make. In fact, not so long ago the UK had a Department for International Development which worked to build up the infrastructure in fragile countries. But of course it is no more as it is now merged with the Foreign Office. Never begrudge aid to the developing world – it could prevent these dangerous journeys made by desperate people.
Also once in the UK the asylum system needs reform or at least some support to increase the speed of processing claims as it is notoriously slow and people live and wait in a limbo situation for months and years. And while their claims are being processed they are not allowed to work even if they have skills and academic qualifications (which I think is just stupid). Instead, whilst waiting they are given accommodation and £39.63 per person in a household. The accommodation is not luxurious, far from it, and just recently there has been an outcry as more and more unaccompanied children are being dumped in hotels with no care or support. Some of these children are in Brighton hotels. However, I do know that volunteers around the country are rallying round and doing their utmost to support and help many refugees including the recent influx of 15,000 from Afghanistan.
All the above will need political will. But from this government it is not likely. It is quite clear our Home Secretary does not want to solve the problem in an empathetic way, instead she would rather wall off the UK from any more inconvenient types turning up on our beaches and send troops to the French beaches. In fact this government is unable even to co-operate with the French as Johnson put a letter to Macron on Twitter before Macron had seen it, and Macron then disinvited Patel to a key meeting on the tragedy. If you look at the letter it’s really just about more policing of the situation. Well that won’t stop people trying to come, ever.
I’m really not sure how things are going to be improved. Not with this government who cannot lead from the front, or deal with difficult situations, and quite frankly are afraid of what the right and the Ukippers think about all these foreigners coming to our island. But these are desperate people and if 75% of claims are ratified then that says something about their need.
So I leave you with the fact that migration of people is what happens. There has always been migration and it will continue, there have always been displaced persons and there always will be displaced people. At the very least we should put systems into place to deal with the dangerous crossing of the English channel. It is what we should do. We can welcome refugees and we should.
Penny Kocher, 29th November 2021