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People fleeing danger need bridges, not borders and barbed wire

30 October 2020

The horrifying and avoidable deaths of the migrant family who tried to cross the Channel should move Christians to action, says Sophie Cartwright


A group of people, thought to be migrants, are brought by the Border Force into Dover from the Channel, last week

A group of people, thought to be migrants, are brought by the Border Force into Dover from the Channel, last week

ON TUESDAY, a family of four drowned in the English Channel: Rasoul Iran-nejad, Shiva Mohammed-panahi, and two of their children, Anita and Armin (News, 30 October). Another three people, including Rasoul and Shiva’s baby, Artin, are feared dead.

The family who drowned were very likely to be seeking sanctuary: they came from Iran, consistently one of the main countries from which the UK receives asylum applicants, and one from which a significant majority of asylum applications are granted. They appear to have had family in the UK.

They are among what remains of a small number of people who are trying to reach the UK from northern France, having been forced to flee their homes and having already undertaken long and treacherous journeys. In desperation, they are forced to make a precarious and dangerous crossing, because there is no other kind available.

This needs to change. Some people need to move. If we are truly committed to protecting those who are seeking refuge, and to preventing the loss of human life, we must make it easier for them to do so.


THERE is no established route allowing someone to apply for asylum in the UK before arrival. For example, the UK does not issue humanitarian visas. Other routes are extremely restrictive. Of the handful of people who want to claim asylum in the UK, having made it to northern France, many do so because of family ties. In a life uprooted, fragmented, and displaced, this might be because their only living relatives are here.

But family-reunion rules normally will not allow them to do so: for example, under family-reunion rules for those recognised as refugees in the UK, children over 18 are not allowed to come to the UK to reunite with their parents, nor are adult siblings permitted to reunite.

It is notable that some of the few safe and managed routes that did recently support forcibly displaced people in coming to the UK are now closed. The Dubs amendment, through which the UK facilitated the movement of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to the UK from elsewhere in Europe, was recently closed. This is especially chilling as we see children dying in the Channel.

Refugee resettlement has not operated in the UK since March 2020, when it was paused because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, international travel has resumed, and many other countries have reopened resettlement programmes. The UK’s resettlement schemes remain closed, even in cases where British communities are ready and waiting to welcome resettled refugees.

The lack of managed routes for people seeking sanctuary is made more dangerous the more that borders become a further obstacle to finding safe harbour. There is ample evidence that enforcing ever tighter border controls does not stop desperate people from moving, but, rather, pushes them to make dangerous journeys.

To give one example, I have highlighted previously a report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee which warned, in 2019, that “a policy that focuses exclusively on closing borders will drive migrants to take more dangerous routes, and push them into the hands of criminal groups.”

This warning and many others went unheeded amid a political discourse that concentrates on the need to make informal routes to the UK “unviable”; depicts migrants as threats to be held back, expelled, and tightly controlled; and is correspondingly fixated on firmer borders as the centrepiece of a “good” immigration system.


WE BADLY need a world in which people fleeing danger find bridges. Instead, there are borders and barbed wire.

And it does not end there. Those who reach our shores are subjected to suspicion and disbelief when they claim asylum, as is well-evidenced. Many are subjected to destitution and detention as they struggle through this system, terrified of removal to a place where they may be in mortal danger. This cruelty is often justified as a measure to protect British society against those who would game the system.

The same discourse that argues for making movement more difficult often also suggests that we need to entrench rather than challenge the culture of disbelief surrounding asylum claimants: that we should summarily refuse a range of asylum claims without proper consideration. This is in itself deeply disturbing for anyone concerned about human dignity and the protection of refugees, and so for Christians.

As children die in the Channel, our Government ramps up a policy very likely to increase the risk of this happening again and again. A discourse that scapegoats migrants and regards them with suspicion leaves no room for seeing them as human beings. It also leaves no room for responding seriously to evidence and seeking creative solutions to problems that threaten their lives.

If we are serious about protecting sanctuary-seekers, reopening and significantly expanding the Dubs Scheme and Resettlement programmes, expanding criteria for family reunion, and establishing a humanitarian visa will be important steps in the right direction.

We must also challenge the politics that pursues ever tighter borders blindly and at all costs, and the discourse that encourages it. We must actively work for a culture that values the protection of refugees, and keeps the humanity of migrants and refugees at the heart of the policies that affect them.

The horrifying and avoidable deaths of seven human beings should move us to action. Churches that want to get involved can encourage people to write to their MPs, asking them to support more safe and managed routes for sanctuary-seekers, including reopening and expanding the Dubs scheme and resettlement, alongside an asylum system geared to protecting claimants.

In our congregations, in our prayers, and in our daily lives, we can seek to remember humanity in an area where it is so often obscured.


Dr Sophie Cartwright is Policy Officer at JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service) UK .

JRS UK is holding an online prayer vigil on 2 November, to remember those who have lost their lives seeking safety. Register online at jrsuk.net.

Donations to support destitute refugees and asylum-seekers are invited at jrsuk.net/donate. To find out more, phone JRS UK on 020 7488 7310, or email uk@jrs.net.

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