Channel deaths: innocent people losing their lives is the cost of political cowardice

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We have created this crisis but it is those that die in the Channel who ultimately pay the price

At least 27 people died in the Channel this week because the governing party knows that many of its voters don’t want the UK to take anything like its fair share of refugees and asylum seekers, and is too cowardly to make a case against them.

They died because large sections of the media are content to peddle half-truths and whip-up anti-refugee sentiments in order to sell more newspapers.

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They died because the Home Office continues to ignore all the evidence which shows their policies actually make life easier for the people-traffickers and smugglers they purport to be clamping down on.

They died because as a country we are unable to face up to our long legacy of imperialism and foreign interventions, which have done so much to create the conditions of extreme instability that force millions of people displaced from their home countries to seek safety elsewhere.

We - our politicians, our media, our national discourse - have turned this into the crisis it is. But it is the 27 people who died and those that will die in future who pay the price.

Because make no mistake, this issue will continue. Real human beings will die again, freezing cold and scared in that narrow strait of treacherous sea that separates us from France, because of political cowardice.

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No doubt you’ve heard from certain politicians that these people shouldn’t have been making the journey. Politicians who, rather than deal in uncomfortable facts, would rather feign ignorance and claim, for example, that refugees who end up in France have no right to claim asylum in the UK, that they are obliged to claim it in the first ‘safe country’ they enter, or that the only way to solve this issue is by making the journey more and more difficult to attempt.

Not only are these things untrue, but any politician who says them either knows they are untrue or knows so little about the issue that they shouldn’t be speaking publicly about it in the first place.

BBC journalist Lewis Goodall, who has recently been reporting from Calais, Tweeted saying that he can’t help but wonder if any of the people he spoke with in the last few days were among those who died on Wednesday. Though my visit wasn’t as recent, I can’t help but wonder the same thing.

There are a number of moments that stick in my head from time spent in northern France and Belgium, volunteering and reporting on this issue a few years ago.

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Being offered time and time again a share of a biscuit or a sandwich by someone who had likely not eaten a real meal in weeks, but still felt compelled to share what they had.

Playing football in a car park with a group of Kurdish boys who, despite being younger than my 15-year-old brother at the time, were living in tents halfway across the world from their homes, with no one to care for them. ‘Many nights,’ they told me, ‘the police wake us up and smash our belongings’.

But clearest in my mind is a man named Yusuf who had been stuck in France for several months when I met him. He had fled Syria and at one point in his long journey been kept in chains by slavers in Libya. His English was perfect - he had been a teacher - which is why he was set on coming to the UK. He wore all his worldly possessions and relied day-to-day on the food provided by aid-workers and volunteers. After half an hour’s conversation we parted ways but as I turned to head off guiltily back to my hotel, knowing Yusuf faced another cold lonely night in a tent, or worse, I felt his hand on my shoulder.

“A memento, for you to remember me,” he said, smiling, holding out a pair of polarised sunglasses.

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At least 27 people died in the Channel yesterday. People who, like you the reader, had hopes and dreams, fears. Who looked up at the sky sometimes and felt overwhelmed at the scale of it all. Who had first kisses and bad dreams; who laughed and loved.

They’re dead because our country didn’t want them here. And for that, we all share some of the blame.

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