Last week, Boris Johnson announced that he was considering changing the law in order to deter migrants from crossing the English Channel. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, put in a formal request to the Ministry of Defence amid claims that the government intended to send in the Royal Navy. The Immigration Minister, Chris Philp, then added to the furore, calling for asylum-seekers to be fingerprinted on arrival and face “real consequences if they try to cross again”.
Yesterday, it was announced that child refugees would be detained by the Border Force in a migrant “processing centre” instead of being looked after by the local authority. The Home Office refused to say if children will be detained beyond the legal limit or the conditions in which they would be kept. They refused to even confirm how many people were being detained. Kent County Council had repeatedly warned the government that they needed national resources in order to care for these children properly. But the government chose not to listen and is instead taking a far more dangerous and draconian approach.
Thankfully, many of the other plans have had to be abandoned. The government eventually had to resile from plans to use warships in the Channel after human rights groups advised them that doing so might be illegal. The UN Refugee Agency also intervened. They warned that the action the UK Government were considering could cause “fatal incidents” and reminded politicians that “saving lives should be the first priority”.
But this was never really about warships. It was all about rhetoric. About being seen to be tough on migration. If the United Kingdom genuinely wanted to find a solution to this tragic situation, then they would set up a safe route for refugees to claim asylum. They could, for example, set up a humanitarian visa system or start processing asylum claims in Calais. Instead, they have decided to make the situation worse. They have chosen to whip up fear of a foreign “invasion” when, in reality, the people who are making these crossings are desperate people, fleeing war and violence, that need our help and our solidarity.
Any attempt to stop people from peacefully seeking asylum is a violation of their fundamental human rights. Anyone that would have you believe otherwise, or that deliberately downplays the human tragedy that is at the heart of this debate, has a far more sinister agenda. Indeed, it is impossible to know how many people have died crossing the Channel. In the last few years, thousands of people have died crossing from Libya to Italy. When they arrive in Europe, they face violence and hostility. Refugees have had their tents slashed and their camps gassed. They have been beaten up at night, arrested, trafficked, exploited, and killed. In January, a Sudanese man was found dead in a lake in Calais. In March, a child died on the railway tracks as he tried to get to England. Last year, countless people were found dead. Many drowned, others starved to death. Some committed suicide. The media consistently fail to report these facts or to provide balanced and responsible coverage.
Nobody makes this journey unless they absolutely have to. We must never forget that. We should not be demonising refugees. We should be welcoming them with open arms and doing everything in our power to give them justice. After all, we are, in no small part, responsible for much of their hardship. We need to place these migrations in context; that means looking at how the United Kingdom has played a role in destabilising the regions from which they have fled. But it also means looking to the future, and understanding these migrations as one part of a much larger crisis.
In the years to come, we will see many more refugees. As more migrants are displaced because of war, violence, and the ongoing effects of the climate crisis, we are going to have to do everything in our power to resist the racist narratives that now permeate every part of our culture, and strip so many people of their basic humanity. Currently, the majority of displaced people live in regions that we have invaded in the past or regions in which our military personnel are still present. We are, in part, responsible for many of these journeys. Many of the houses bombed. Many of the towns left in ruins. Many of the families torn apart. But the climate and ecological emergency piles injustice upon injustice. The United Kingdom, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, is historically responsible for a large proportion of carbon emissions. By contrast, the countries who are most vulnerable to climate breakdown – and, thus, the people who will die and be displaced as a result of the climate and ecological emergency – are the least responsible for this crisis.
We need to have faith in our politicians to do the right thing, to show leadership in the struggle for climate justice, and not to pander to the far right and their racist agenda. Across Europe, we are witnessing the rise of fascism once again. Totalitarian leaders and increasingly authoritarian governments are endangering the human rights of migrants and refugees. In Greece, for example, the government is taking migrants from detention centres, putting them on small, unsafe boats and abandoning them at sea. The United Kingdom is embarking upon the same, dangerous path and we must do everything we can to turn this situation around.
We have a lot of work to do. The recent furore over the Black Lives Matter movement showed that the British people still have not come to terms with our colonial past. The neo-colonial practises of many fossil fuel companies and the current climate policies of all our major parties would seem to imply that, sadly, we do not understand the present either. Our current economic system, with its crude fixation on economic growth and its dangerous role in fuelling the climate and ecological emergency, is driving us all to extinction. But the sixth mass extinction will not happen overnight; it is playing out right now. Systems break down, piece by piece, until chaos swirls around us like the eye of a tornado.
If the struggle for climate justice is to be anything more than just a slogan, it needs to mean a strong and unwavering commitment to human rights and migrant justice. Because mass migrations are, at this point, inevitable. And, if the world continues upon its current course and our politicians continue to pursue decarbonisation policies that essentially sacrifice hundreds of millions of people, then the level of migration that we will see in the next hundred years will far outstrip anything we have seen before.
Indulge me, for a moment, in a thought experiment. Take the worst-case climate scenario and say that, legally, the countries most responsible for the climate and ecological emergency are obliged to take in their fair share of climate refugees. There is, in fact, a good legal argument as to why this should be the case and not some abstract thought experiment, but let us leave that important debate to one side for the moment. Based on a crude estimation of our historic emissions, the United Kingdom would therefore be responsible for well over ten million climate refugees. Ten million desperate people.
If our response to a couple of thousand people making this perilous journey is to detain child refugees at the border and to talk about sending in warships to turn the boats around, what will be our response when there are millions of people fleeing from the effects of the climate and ecological emergency? How can we trust our politicians and the media to deal with this tragedy in an ethical and responsible manner?
This is the scale that we now have to operate on. The left cannot, and must not, ignore the plight of refugees. If some progressive politicians think they can avoid talking about climate breakdown and migrant justice, then they are either lying to the public or lying to themselves. There is tragedy to come; that much is certain. And the left must show real leadership. We need an approach that is rooted in solidarity, compassion, and love. Because, as always, it will be the poorest and the most vulnerable people in our society that will bear the brunt of this crisis.
Many people are dying now. Many people have already died. Many people, no matter how quickly we act, will die or be displaced in the not too distant future. We must, of course, do all we can to stop climate and ecological catastrophe. We have to decarbonise at pace and degrow the economy. But, at the same time, we need to accept that some aspects of the climate and ecological emergency are playing out now. We need a labour movement that stands up for refugees and defends human rights. Because if we choose to say nothing, we will be complicit in the tragedy to come.