People drown in the Channel. Fake tears, and fingers in ears.

by Chris Bertram on November 25, 2021

Around thirty people are dead, drowned in the English Channel. And everyone knows why they died. Because the UK government, like all governments of wealthy countries, makes it impossible for people who want to claim asylum to enter the country by the ways you and I travel. So people who want to do so – as is their human right – have to enter by clandestine means. And because states are powerful, have border guards, fences, technology to detect people etc, they have to make use of smugglers to get across international borders.

Whenever there’s a major loss of life, the same politicians who have done everything they can to make it impossible for people to arrive by safe means, blame the smugglers and criminal gangs whose businesses would not exist without the measures they themselves put in place. They deplore people who make a profit at the expense of the vulnerable, but make sure that they also criminalize people who would help those people for free from humanitarian motives.

They also blame the government on the other side of the border, for not doing enough, not clamping down hard enough. That other government, in this case the French, also sheds fake tears for the dead. At the other end of France, people who want to enter that country to claim asylum at the Italian border are pushed into the mountains to make their journeys, mountains where they freeze to death. Are the drowned more worthy of compassion than the frozen?

Meanwhile the keyboard warriors and fake legal experts do service on social media, echoing the claims of politicians. Those seeking asylum should stay in the first safe country they reach, apparently. Well, that isn’t the law actually, but the repetition will be endless as well as claims that “they” are mostly “economic migrants” or – a clear signal that the tweeter is far-right – “fighting-age males” who pose a security threat. Though the figures don’t bear it out, suppose most are “economic migrants”? Wouldn’t the “minority” who are refugees have a right to have their claim assessed to seek sanctuary? And doesn’t a young man fleeing conscription from Al Shabaab or the Eritrean military have the right to seek safety? And is it wrong for people to seek asylum in a place where they may have a relative or speak the language? (Since Brexit, the UK government has shut down the routes for family reunification.)

Those who say that refugees should stay where they are and not take dangerous journeys to Europe or the US, often show little interest in finding out what the options for those people are. They aren’t safe in refugee camps or living among the urban poor at the margins of a Turkish city. Would those who say they should stay put accept their own lives being put on hold for decades, exposure to violence and rape, denial of education for their children, a life of destitution without the right to work? Of course they wouldn’t.

The fact is that the politicians and voters of wealthy countries are happy so long as the victims of war and persecution can be kept out of sight and far away. In the event that they come, they would prefer to push them far away and to warehouse them somewhere else, in conditions which constitute crimes against humanity, as with the Australian use of Nauru. If they are going to die, let them die far away, perhaps in Libya or the Sahara Desert. But so long as we can’t see what is going on and can tell ourselves stories about smugglers, “pull factors”, “economic migrants” and “fighting-age males” all is to the good. So it goes.

The ministers and the keyboard border guards who say “those people” should be somewhere else but not here have no solutions for the world’s displaced. They say “not here”, “stay in France”, “stay in Italy”, “stay in Libya”. Do they want a frank discussion about international co-operation and a system where each country plays its part, according to its capacity to do so? Not interested. Because any such system would involve Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Lebanon doing less and countries like the UK and France doing a lot more. Instead it is all “secure the borders”, “national sovereignty”, “take control”. Fingers in ears, ritual tears for the victims when they are too close to home.

I’m tired, because just as politicians and their dupes repeat the same old stories, so we repeat the same old solutions: “safe and legal routes”. It is a kind of pantomime where we each play our allotted role but where things go on as before and people carry on dying. But I’m not as tired as the poor bastards who make the journeys for themselves and their families, who are beaten, who freeze, who drown. So we have to keep on keeping on.



Sophie Jane 11.25.21 at 11:12 am

Borders are violence. We need to abolish them.

No less of a rote response than “safe and legal routes” – but we have to keep on keeping on.


Alan White 11.25.21 at 4:00 pm

Somber but spot-on post Chris.


B 11.25.21 at 4:05 pm

Comment deleted. [Not carrying pro-Assad conspiracy theories in comments here. Go away.]


GLEN TOMKINS 11.25.21 at 4:34 pm

Just to be clear, when they use the phrase “fighting age males”, it’s not just that they are trying to create the impression that these are potential terrorists. They are also trying to build the idea that we are stunting the development of democracy in their countries of origin. Maybe this is more of a thing in the US than elsewhere, but the rightwing here has this well-developed mythology about a well-armed populace being necessary to preserve the liberties of a free people. From their point of view, the more military aged males we let in, especially if they are fleeing a tyrannical regime at home, the more we enable and facilitate the failure of free people to overthrow these regimes.

Selfishness always finds a theory to justify itself as benevolence, most readily of the tough love variety. So, the more clear the danger back home from a horribly oppressive regime, the greater the good we do asylum seekers by forcing them to stay in their countries to fight to turn them into democracies every bit as wonderful as those we enjoy here. You can’t dismiss this argument entirely, as you have to admit that right wingers in power here are busy turning our democracies into something more closely approximating the regimes that asylum seekers are fleeing. How can you argue against equality?


PatinIowa 11.25.21 at 7:56 pm

“They deplore people who make a profit at the expense of the vulnerable.”

I don’t know what it’s like in the UK or other countries. In the US they only deplore some people who make a profit at the expense of the vulnerable.


Bob 11.26.21 at 2:18 am

Great piece Chris.

One thing that puzzles me is why everyone wants to get into Britain instead of claiming asylum in France. This is not to say that Britain should not accept asylum-seekers. But why is it that everyone is so desperate to get there? Are the French less welcoming, or less open to refugees? I can understand why people don’t want to stay in, say, Libya. But this apparent obsession with Britain as “the promised land” surprises me. How did Britain get this reputation for being such a great place for refugees in the first place? It hardly rings true!


Fake Dave 11.26.21 at 3:10 am

Great post Chris! It’s nothing we haven’t heard before, but that’s the point, isn’t it? This same debate plays out over and over, but no reforms are made. When fear is running high or the right is ascendant, borders may be hardened or certain groups proscribed, but legal immigration continues in various forms. When humanitarian guilt spills over or the left is resurgent, entry processes may be liberalized and special admissions offered to specific groups, but numerous artificial limits remain. The basic system of arbitrary quotas, a “guilty until proven innocent” asylum system, and ethnonationalist social engineering at the border hasn’t changed meaningfully since the 19th Century and the current shape of the debate seems designed to keep it that way.

People talk about open borders and the universal right to asylum, but that describes where we want to be, not how we get there. A frictionless utopia of free trade and free movement sounds lovely (except perhaps for the environment), but it’s not much of a policy proposal in itself. In the mean time we need to find reforms to international law and political norms that can be implemented immediately and relatively painlessly yet have lasting impacts so that we’re not stuck having the same arguments in ten or a hundred years. The UN definitely has a role to play, but what’s really essential is that we drop the neo-colonialist double standard of porous borders in the developing world, but tight quotas for rich countries and settle on a system that applies the same rules and rights everywhere.


George Carty 11.26.21 at 7:51 am


I suspect the main attraction of the UK in particular is its language: English is the world’s second language, and refugees are far likely to speak a reasonable amount of it than they are French. Another attraction is the UK’s thriving black economy, which is also why the cross-Channel migrants are disproportionately young men.

They know that (due to popular British hostility to compulsory ID cards) it is far easier to work illegally in the UK than in France, and they see an opportunity to earn some money which they can send abroad to their families (who would often be in some Middle Eastern refugee camp).


Matt 11.26.21 at 8:05 am

Bob said: But this apparent obsession with Britain as “the promised land” surprises me. How did Britain get this reputation for being such a great place for refugees in the first place? It hardly rings true!

Chris certainly knows more about the specific details about both France and the UK than I do, so can comment specifically on those if he wants, but there are fairly general reasons why this sort of thing happens. One is that a person seeking asylum might have “connections” in a particular country. These can be anyone from friends of friends (or less) to people from the same town, to close friends, to family members, including more remote and very close ones. These people can make a transition much easier, and so can make going to a particular country much more desirable. Family ties are often taken into account in resettlement programs and through some other procedures in some countries (like the ability to “follow to join” in the US) but these paths are fairly limited, mostly to pretty close family members, and in many countries there are also backlogs due to much too low relocation quotas. (These have only gotten worse during Covid, of course.) (I have a paper on this topic that was supposed to come out in a volume that I’m now a bit skeptical will ever see the light of day.) Sometimes people also have other reasons for favoring a particular country. These do include having false (or at least not clearly true) beliefs about the legal situation of people in different countries. But, they also include things like being able to speak one language or another, or at least having one member of one’s party who can do so. So, if you can speak English, even a bit, but can’t speak French at all, it might make sense to favor going to the UK over France, and this can be so even if it’s your brother (who is with you) who speaks some English, while neither of you speak any French. In a better world, we’d have organizations that would facilitate movement and consider these factors (as well as addressing root causes, of course!) but in our world, this is what we get, at least for now.


MFB 11.26.21 at 8:06 am

I’m not quite sure why Britain is considered such a desirable destination that people will die to get there. One theory is that although it may be an unpleasant place in many ways, the relatively limited control over the population’s movement makes it a less unpleasant place to be a refugee in than elsewhere. But I suspect the real reason is that it’s seen as a stepping-stone to the United States in a way that France isn’t seen (whatever the reality of the situation may be).

Not that I know anything specific, being an African.


Barry Cotter 11.26.21 at 9:00 am

Bob @6

People want to be in the UK, not France because it is vastly easier to get illegal work in the UK than in France and people quite understandably want to be able to have a higher standard of living than you can on refugee welfare.


Zamfir 11.26.21 at 9:17 am

One thing that puzzles me is why everyone wants to get into Britain instead of claiming asylum in France.

Simply put, because it’s not “everyone”, it’s a small subset. Asylum applications in the EU are around 500,000 a year. There is another flow of undocumented migrants who do not apply for asylum. Numbers of that are obviously vague, but it’s a similar magnitude.

Out of those numbers, something like 20,000 crossed the Channel by boat in recent years, up from single-digits thousands a few years ago. Some to apply for asylum, some not. So it’s a few percent of the total, selected because they have specific reasons to go the UK instead of staying in mainland Europe.

Those reasons tend to be some of the following (usually more than one): they speak English, they have family or some other support network in the UK, they have bad experiences with other European countries, or they just heard good things about the UK (justified or not).


Chris Bertram 11.26.21 at 11:35 am

It is often asserted, particularly by French politicians, that people want to go to the UK because illegal working is easier here. The argument seems to be that Britain does not have a national id card, therefore …. But the hostile environment means that employers who take on people without the legal right to work face very heavy fines, and anyone applying for work in the UK needs to demonstrate that they have the right to work here. This is why the hostile environment led to the Windrush Scandal that rendered destitute thousands of legal residents who lacked the documentation to prove their right to work: they could not access all these alleged working opportunities. It may be that there are indeed more opportunities in the UK than in France, say in car washes or the like, but I would like to see the evidence for that rather than bare assertion.


Chris Bertram 11.26.21 at 11:39 am

And I should add to that that the vast majority of boat arrivals claim asylum, with most eventually recognized as refugees, and that pending the assessment of their claims they do not work but subsist on a grant of £35 a week (less than they get in France) and live in terrible housing in unattractive places. Many live like this for years on end.


nastywoman 11.26.21 at 1:20 pm

Where does Refugees and Migrants want to go?

‘The US primarily:
one in five potential migrants named the country as their preferred destination.
Followed by Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and Saudi Arabia


Bob 11.26.21 at 1:37 pm

Thanks for the various responses to my question. But I have to say that “magnet Britain” seems more of a mystery to me than ever. If I had my pick of countries eager to take me, then, yes, I’d be more likely to go somewhere where they speak English and/or where I already have relatives. But given the horrors of where the migrants have come from, the dangers of crossing the Channel, and the misery in the camps around Calais while waiting, I think, in their shoes, I’d start learning French, if language was the only thing standing between me and a comfortable life in France. So that argument doesn’t really make sense. And Chris has pointed out, quite convincingly, why the illegal-work-is-easier argument doesn’t work. So scratch that argument. Note also that language didn’t seem to prevent large numbers of refugees going to Germany. In fact, Germany seems to be another “magnet” country. Is it because the British and German economies are more “buoyant” for lack of a better word?


Bob 11.26.21 at 1:40 pm

Can anyone comment on the relative ease or difficulty in gaining refugee status in France, Britain and Germany? I feel that must have something to do with the attraction of Britain.


Chris Bertram 11.26.21 at 3:24 pm

From what I can tell, asylum acceptance rates are higher in the UK where, according to Migration Observatory “54% of asylum applications from 2016 to 2018 are estimated to have received a grant of asylum-related protection by May 2020 – up from 36% at initial decision”. However you’d need to be careful about drawing any conclusions, as different asylum seeking populations apply at different rates to different countries.


Chris Bertram 11.26.21 at 4:21 pm

Reading coverage in Le Monde just now, where the question is posed why those people in the Calais area don’t just claim asylum in France. One answer suggested is that they are subject to the Dublin regulation (an EU system), so the risk for them is that instead of being granted asylum in France they get removed to the country where they first entered the EU, such as Greece, Italy or Spain. It might be better to be a refugee in France than in the UK (other things being equal) but it is certainly better to be a refugee in the UK than to be sent back to Greece.


CasparC 11.26.21 at 4:25 pm

[Comment was from banned commenter Dipper/John Slee under an alias.]


Tim Worstall 11.26.21 at 4:59 pm

“Those seeking asylum should stay in the first safe country they reach, apparently. Well, that isn’t the law actually,”

Very slightly off topic but this is one that annoys me too. Even if from the other side of the definition.

As I understand the distinction at least. The right to asylum is indeed a right. Meet the base qualifiers – fear of or actual danger for this list of reasons in home country – and there is that right of asylum. It’s the law, it has to be granted. If those base qualifiers are met.

But, but, that right exists in that first safe haven. As in, meet those qualifiers and that first safe haven must offer the asylum – as of right.

Now, second, third, 95th, safe place can offer asylum or entry to whoever they like. That’s a pretty strong part of what sovereignty means, that you can let folks in if you wish. But that’s a privilege, something that may or may not be granted according to the law of the place that is that second, third or 95th safe haven reached.

The right of asylum exists in that first safe haven, the possibility of it in many other places. This is before whatever twists the EU and or Brexit have added to the scene.

That’s not quite the same as asylum seekers “should” stay in that first safe place even if colloquial English might put it that way.


Chris Bertram 11.26.21 at 5:55 pm

@Tim Worstall, you’ve been repeatedly corrected on your understanding of the Refugee Convention on twitter, so I see no reason to repeat the exercise here. In any case, you, and the likes of Grant Shapps, who repeat the falsehood, are not arguing in good faith but merely saying that refugees are someone else’s problem and should go away. Like I said, fingers in ears.


Chris Bertram 11.26.21 at 6:01 pm

@CasparC As a matter of fact I do believe that the UK shares some historical and current responsibility for the circumstances that lead to mass forced displacement from places like Afghanistan. You say someone should do something about those circumstances, but who if not the wealthiest nations on the planet who currently house only a tiny proportion of those displaced people? And the UK recently reduced its foreign aid budget, at the behest of the same nativists who say that all the boats should be stopped.


MisterMr 11.26.21 at 9:45 pm

I’ve nothing to say other than I strongly agree with the OP (not just for asylum seekers in UK but everywhere of course).


J-D 11.27.21 at 12:12 am

Perhaps the best way of solving the problem of people on dinghies in the channel is to do something about the circumstances that cause people to leave their nations to come here in the first place rather than informing me and millions of other Brits that despite our ancestors doing menial tasks and living crap lives that we somehow accumulated race responsibility for every wrong in the world , an unlimited bill which we, our children, and their children must spend their lives paying.

If I heard that lots of new people were moving in to my neighbourhood, I would not say ‘this is an unlimited bill which I must spend my life paying’, because it would not be an unlimited bill that I would have to spend my life paying, or even a limited bill that I would have to pay. So I don’t get how you figure that you would be obligated to spend your life paying an unlimited bill if more people moved in to your country.


Austin George Loomis 11.27.21 at 3:56 am

say “those people” should be somewhere else but not here

At one point in Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, either Dirk Gently or Kate Schechter sees some apparently unhoused denizens of London and has a thought about them which I can’t find in my search through the text (although, the Luck Plane taking the shape it does around me, it’ll probably jump out and punch my eyeball the next time I read the book just for the sake of reading it). Online searches are of no help without the exact phrasing, which I wouldn’t be looking it up online if I had the exact phrasing*, but at least I found a summary of it:

all that anyone wants from them is their absence. But everyone has to be somewhere.

“What a Dictionary, have to know how to spell it before you can look up how to spell it…”
— Annie Sullivan in William Gibson (playwright)’s The Miracle Worker


Tim Worstall 11.27.21 at 8:07 am

Here is UNHCR on the point:


It should be noted that Member States are not required to apply the concept of first
country of asylum, as Article 26 is a permissive provision.1 However, in accordance with the APD, those Member States which apply the concept are not required to examine whether an applicant qualifies as a refugee or for subsidiary protection status, where a country which not a Member State is considered as a first country of asylum for the applicant pursuant to Article 26.2

In other words, the Member State may consider such applications as inadmissible.
Destination countries may have interests in reducing irregular movements. As such, the
concept of first country of asylum may be seen as a potential deterrent to irregular
movements by refugees. However, UNHCR notes that the causes of secondary
movements are manifold and include, among other things, a lack of durable solutions,
limited capacity to host refugees and a failure to provide effective protection in some
third countries. Therefore, the assessment of whether a third country does constitute a
first country of asylum requires a careful and individualised case-by-case examination.

That’s an awful lot of work being done to define something that apparently doesn’t exist.

Whether first safe haven and the concept of refoulment should exist is another thing. That the two concepts do exist in this area of law seems obvious enough, given that the oversight body discusses them in such detail.


Chris Bertram 11.27.21 at 9:32 am

@Tim Worstall, your ability to use google is impressive, but your ability to understand what you read after your use it is much less so. UNHCR is here saying that collective inter-state arrangements like the Dublin arrangements within the EU are acceptable and do not in and of themselves breach the non-refoulement obligation (though in fact, courts have sometimes said that refugees may not be returned to Greece, Dublin notwithstanding, because of conditions for refugees there). The Convention, however, does not impose any obligation on refugees to claim asylum in the first “safe” country they pass through and this is supported by subsequent case law. The UK is, of course, no longer a party to Dublin.


Fake Dave 11.27.21 at 10:26 am

To me it reads like UNHCR is using passive aggressive legalese to suggest that the whole “first country” thing wasn’t really their idea, but no one asked them.l


Ray Vinmad 11.27.21 at 2:02 pm

Do we understand why people are like this? I really wonder if Americans and Britains will destroy their own countries rather than let in refugees. We should take them in by right but the fear seems so irrational. It isn’t a case of conflict between their safety and our safety but just the contrary. I don’t see any good reasons on the side of people who won’t allow their country to take in refugees.

Comments on this entry are closed.