France and UK play blame game over migrant deaths

France and UK play blame game as migrants wash up dead on their shores
6 min read
20 Aug, 2020
Comment: A racist Tory government is doing everything it can to worsen conditions for asylum seekers and refugees. This death is on their hands, writes Malia Bouattia.
Priti Patel recently suggested the Royal Navy should be deployed to deter migrants [Getty]

The tragic news of a young Sudanese boy drowning to death in the English Channel has demonstrated all too soon and distressingly, the outcomes of the newly intensified harsh anti-migrant practices of the UK.

His body washed up on Sangette beach not too far from the infamous Calais migrant camps, otherwise described by many on the right as "the jungle".

His death comes just days after the Tories set out their racist campaign to stop refugees attempting to enter the country by sea. 

Unsurprisingly, the Home Secretary's response was to shift the blame." This horrendous incident serves as a brutal reminder of the abhorrent criminal gangs and people smugglers who exploit vulnerable people. Working together we are determined to stop them " she tweeted

In fact, there is no evidence suggesting that smugglers were involved. The boy who lost his life had set off with another teenager who was found by authorities suffering from severe hypothermia. They had attempted to make the journey in a flimsy inflatable dinghy, using shovels as oars. 

It's worth restating though, that even if their tragic journey had involved smugglers, that should not diminish the seriousness of the border policies and asylum processes that are driving many to such levels of desperation. It is the border regime that creates the opportunity for smugglers, as well as the deadly conditions in which migrants must travel. It can never be a solution. 

Furthermore, Boris' cabinet has made it abundantly clear to what extent they dehumanise migrant children. Just a day before the death of the Sudanese boy, unaccompanied child refugees were being detained and placed in a "processing centre" in Kent.

The Home Office is stooping to a new, sickening low, and is targeting the most vulnerable

While much of the liberal commentariat overflowed with outrage when the Trump administration did the same across the Atlantic, they don't seem to care when it happens at home. 

The Home Office is stooping to a new, sickening low. It is targeting the most vulnerable - children who are travelling without any parents or guardians - and systematically criminalising them in order to divert attention from the government's otherwise abysmal economic, political, and health record.

We should neither expect nor believe the half-hearted sympathies being sent out by the Tories for this particular victim of their policies, all the while they continue to spend their time and resources worsening the conditions for asylum seekers and refugees across the board. His death is on their hands.

Rather than serving as a wake-up call, this tragedy seems to have also turned into a ping-pong blame game between British and French officials. 

An MP from Calais, Pierre-Henri Dumont, tweeted that "What we all feared, happened last night. How many more tragedies must there be for the British to find an ounce of humanity? The impossibility of lodging an asylum request in Great Britain without being physically there is leading to these tragedies. British negligence does not exonerate the French government from its own responsibility." 

The statement is quite rich - even with its caveat - given the French border authority's routinely violent treatment of migrants. The destruction of migrant camps since the Calais "jungle" fiasco has begun again on France's northern coast. And recent agreements with the UK established an intelligence unit on smuggling that is likely to further criminalise and endanger countless refugees.

Again, while outrage poured through our media over Trump's wall-building, little ink was spilled over the joint UK-France
wall erected in Calais by Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron 

"We're talking to French ministers about preventing people leaving France in the first place, and then finding other ways of making sure that we return boats to France when they're trying to make what is a very dangerous crossing" explained government minister, Nick Gibb. 

Meanwhile, Priti Patel's narrative focuses on claiming that the reason many migrants are attempting the dangerous passage across the Channel is because of the racism and violence that they experience in France. 

Ironically, they're right in some ways. Racism, violent border regimes, and the militarisation of anti-migrant policies on both sides of the channel are actually what's murdering migrants. 

The government repeatedly refers to the "dangers" of the journeys taken by migrants as if it's an unfortunate element they have no hand in, as though it's not their practices that are leaving people with no other option than to take a deadly risk. Their own parliamentary report highlighted that the government's border policies are "pushing migrants to take more dangerous routes" and "into the hands of criminal groups". 

Racism, violent border regimes and the militarisation of anti-migrant policies on both sides of the channel are actually what's murdering migrants

Neither country is innocent. 

Since 2014 over 19,500 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, and while there are no formal records for those who lost their lives in the English Channel, that figure is also sure to be distressing. The EU and governments across the continent have been whipping up anti-migrant rhetoric since the crisis began in 2014.

In practice British and French policies have effectively followed the same dehumanising rhetoric as the far-right, even if ministers and government statements use the terminology of humanitarianism.

It is also important that we reject the narrative that Britain has been a nation that welcomes all those persecuted and fleeing dangers at home. History points to quite the contrary, because borders have always existed to serve the elite. They exclude, reject, and kill all those they wish to discard. For as long as Britain has enforced its borders, it has worked against migrants. Successive Irish, Jewish, Caribbean, Asian, African and Middle Eastern waves of migration have faced exclusion, institutional racism, and violence - all the while making British capital richer through their cheap labour. 

We must also challenge the idea that all those making the dangerous journey to the UK are fleeing war and conflict, like in Sudan and Syria, and should be helped for these reasons only. Such a narrative can work in the disservice of migrants, creating a binary between those deserving of asylum in the UK, and those simply wishing to migrate for personal or economic reasons as many westerners do so freely, and without danger across the world.

The state responds by institutionalising this hierarchy of "worthy" and "unworthy" migrants, or "good" vs "bad" migrant, and is able to diffuse its violence accordingly.

Borders are always weapons of violence and control

The truth is that borders are always weapons of violence and control. They kill, they maim, and - importantly - they continue to discipline migrants inside the country, making it harder for them to organise, join unions, or involve themselves in its political and social life.

Isolated and fearful, migrants are less likely to fight back. This is all the more so if they have to prove their "victimhood" in order to be welcomed. Progressives need to fight Patel and her ilk today, while also raising the demand that all borders must come down.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.