If you stand on the top of the White Cliffs in the very southeast corner of Kent and look across the Straits of Dover, it is possible to see the outline of the Pas de Calais in France.
The distance as the crow flies is only 30 kilometres. The fastest swimmer to make the crossing did it in a shade under seven hours, ferries do it port-to-port from cast-off to tie-up in about 45 minutes. For most of the 100,000 or more refugees stuck in France where the United Kingdom is your intended destination, it’s a life-long journey. And there are some who have indeed given their lives to make the journey.
Two weeks ago, a small boat carrying some 30 refugees – mostly Kurds and Somalis, but the exact composition of the complement will never be known – went down off the shore of Calais.
Three survivors were picked up clinging to life, the rest lost to the seas as a local fishing captain first on the terrible scene bravely tried to haul as many of the victims on board as he could. Those victims that were pulled up either drowned in their poorly-fitting and flimsy life jackets or died from hypothermia in waters where the ambient temperature is 3 degrees Celsius, enough to shut a body down within 20 minutes of being in the sea in normal clothing.
How desperate must you be to place your life and all of your life savings into the hands of a human smuggler, part of a criminal organisation that buys boats online for Dh5,000 and can get that back and more with the sale of a single seat on an overcrowded craft and pointed to England.
This stretch of water has become the front line in this six-year-long refugee crisis that began with the fallout of the civil war in Syria and the chaos wrought by the rise and defeat of Daesh. If those seminal events weren’t bad enough, there were and sadly remain too many fleeing political, social and economic upheaval from the Horn of Africa, across much of the Middle East and Afghanistan and even as far as Pakistan. There is no shortage of clients for those human smugglers.
But this human story is lost in the political manoeuvrings right now between the UK and France, where the refugee crisis is being played out like a tennis ball being lobbed between London and Paris. And while in the immediate aftermath of the loss of that small craft and the 27 who perished in the water there were moments of solemnity and unity, it’s back to a game of finger-pointing that underscores the attitudes of a UK now free from European Union conventions on assisting refugees.
Brexit, the Brexiteers said, would mean taking back control of the UK’s borders. That’s political shorthand for keeping out riff-raff and refugee rafts come the hell of high water.
In recent weeks it has even been suggested that British politicians take a leaf out of the books of Austria, where illegal immigrants are warehoused on the Pacific island nation of Nauru. In the UK’s case, of course, the suggestion was that those refugees would be shipped some 10,000 kilometres away to the Falkland Islands, the British Overseas Territory claimed by Argentina that sits just outside the Antarctic Circle. Out of sight and out of mind – unless of course you’re a Falkland Islander!
Relations between London and Paris have deteriorated to the point where Priti Patel, the UK’s Home Secretary and responsible for policing, the border force and Britain’s immigration policy, was disinvited to a gathering last week of EU and French officials to discuss the crisis and come up with an action plan.
The British attitude is that the refugees are coming because France lets them come. The French say they are doing all they can to stop the crossings, and that Britain ultimately needs to do more to stop the flow or to come up with a realistic domestic immigration policy that stems the crisis.
As part of the finger-point going on across the Channel, the British have blamed the French for not allowing UK police to patrol on the French side of the border. Certainly not, the French say, as that would be an infringement on their national sovereignty. If the shoe were on the other foot, imagine the reaction in right-wing London tabloids – and the racist headlines – if the UK allowed French police officers to patrol English coastal paths.
The French, President Emmanuel Macron in particular, took exception to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeting a letter between the two heads of state, accusing him of cheapening diplomacy and disrespecting France by putting the letter out on Twitter.
Next April, Macron faces the first round of voting in the presidential election. In recent months and with re-election looming larger with each passing opinion poll, the liberal is moving ever so slightly to the right in an effort to bolster his numbers. Taking a tough stand on refugees moves his support, so too talking tough against the British across the Channel.
In London, where the economic impact of Brexit has been caught up in the worst economic downturn in 300 years resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, shelves are running low, there’s a shortage of workers in the hospitality and agricultural sector where pay is low, and too few truck drivers to haul too many trailers. For voters disillusioned with what Brexit has had to offer so far, at least the mantra of “taking back control of our borders” is holding up – and so what if some refugees drown in the Channel trying to get to the UK illegally.
Johnson knows only too well that acting tough with the French plays well to his demographics.
While all of this plays out and no prospect of any movement or agreement on refugees, it is they who will remain the flotsam and jetsam, perishing on the tides.