THE tragic loss of life in the Channel this week came as a shock despite its inevitability. But this tragedy was avoidable, and it is therefore imperative that the disaster heralds a change in approach from the UK Government.

We need to give people a way to claim asylum in the UK without having to risk their lives. As the charity Care for Calais argued eloquently on Radio Scotland yesterday, the people smugglers are a symptom, not the cause, of the problem. The underlying issue is that you cannot claim asylum in the UK until you are here and that is why people will risk their lives to get into the country.

Yes, there are resettlement schemes available, but they apply only to a tiny percentage of the world’s refugees. Less than 1%. Routes to family reunion are also wholly inadequate. We need more safe legal routes.

The Government’s current strategy of pretending that the cross-channel route can be made “unviable” while spending millions of pounds displacing the crossings further up the coast has succeeded only in making journeys riskier with more deaths resulting.

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Meanwhile the conditions in which those waiting to cross are living in Calais are horrendous – no food, no shelter and no sanitation.

While asylum arrivals have become more visible over the past 18 months – mainly due to Covid – the number of arrivals has remained relatively low. In 2020 there were under 30,000 asylum applications in the UK. In the early 2000s there were more than 80,000 per year. We accept far fewer applications per year than France and Germany. Those making the Channel crossing are fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and other oppressive regimes. They are torture and sexual violence survivors, LGBTQI+ people, modern slavery victims and children.

Yet Priti Patel persists with virulent schemes to put people off claiming asylum in the UK. From the madness of wave machines in the Channel, to the sinister plans for offshore processing at remote locations, her heartless spite knows no bounds.

Part 3 of the Nationality and Borders Bill will make a number of changes to immigration law and enforcement designed to deter refugees from seeking asylum in the UK by arriving through “irregular” routes. The legislation will criminalise those who arrive in this way and make it an offence to assist someone to do so. Powers of maritime enforcement will be strengthened including the ability to turn boats around at sea – known as “pushbacks”. You don’t need much experience at sea to understand how risky such procedures could be for the small unseaworthy vessels that we see on our TV screens.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights is holding an inquiry into the human rights aspects of the bill. Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is part of the domestic legal systems of the UK by virtue of the Human Rights Act, protects the right to life. The state has a positive obligation to adopt laws and practices which do that and the UK is also bound by a number of international refugee and maritime conventions which this bill will breach if enacted into law.

The committee has received a large volume of written evidence and also held several oral evidence sessions on the government’s proposals. Our full report on Part 3 of the bill will be out next week. The weight of the evidence is that the most effective way to deter illegal entry and to stop the business of people smuggling is to create safe and legal routes for asylum seekers. In particular we need a fairer and more efficient system for dealing with asylum claims.

ONE charity which submitted written evidence came up with a concrete proposal which I put to the Home Secretary in the Commons earlier this week. Donate4Refugees provides grassroots support to asylum seekers and refugees.

Their founder and CEO, Amber Bauer, is a Scot based in London who regularly travels to Calais and Greece. She and her husband have hosted refugees in their home. Her suggestion is that the UK allows people to claim asylum at the UK frontier controls operated by the UK in France under the Treaty of Le Touquet, signed in February 2003. They would claim asylum to UK officials at the border on French soil, complete the first stage of their application there and, if their initial application for asylum is accepted by the Home Office in the UK, then the Home Office would transfer them to the UK on regular transport – by ferry or Eurostar/Channel Tunnel. They would be given their Asylum Registration Card in France as their permission to travel and, upon safe arrival in the UK, they would start the “normal” UK process of dispersal accommodation and asylum support to wait through their asylum decision. This proposal would severely reduce demand for smugglers. The UK’s borders would be better controlled because the Home Office would determine who gets to enter as they would be checked on border watch lists etc before crossing. It would stop the need for millions of pounds to be given to the French government to fund border security in northern France and it would enable some refugees to arrive in the UK with their own money and to be self-sufficient at least in the short term, whilst their applications are processed.

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If the objectives as stated by the Home Secretary and Prime Minister are to stop lives being needlessly put at risk making the treacherous irregular crossings of the Channel, to stop the very lucrative smuggler rings and to reduce the burden on lorry drivers (as this continues as an irregular route across the Channel and can reasonably be expected to increase again in winter and post-Covid) then safe, regular alternatives have to be established. But when I put this proposal to Priti Patel, she dismissed it out of hand. The tragedy which transpired on Wednesday means she must revisit it.

The good news is that, working together with cross-party MPs, another refugee charity, Detention Action, have prepared an amendment to the bill which will be tabled when it returns to the Commons in December and which proposes a similar scheme.

The plan is to create a humanitarian visa for people in France seeking to come to the UK to make an asylum claim and to ensure that adults and children whose claims have a good prospect of success are granted safe passage.

Detention Action argue that given that 98% of those making this crossing claim asylum on arrival and the vast majority will have their protection claims upheld, a workable humanitarian visa policy would drastically reduce small boat crossings and help undercut the business model of the people smugglers.

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This humanitarian visa route also has the support of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, whose policy and advocacy manager Zoe Gardner has given powerful testimony against the UK Government’s approach both to the JCHR and in the media. The amendment is due to be tabled in the coming days.

In the words of Care for Calais, for these deaths to be happening at the British border when there is a workable alternative is deeply shameful. If one good thing comes out of this tragedy, meaningful cross-party support for this amendment and its passing will be a fitting memorial to those who lost their lives on our borders.