“Attempting to cross the Channel is just one more terrifying step on a journey”
By Jon Featonby, former policy and advocacy manager, British Red Cross
Last updated 25 April 2023
What would it take to make you decide to get into a small, overcrowded boat, perhaps with your baby or young child, and try to cross the busiest shipping channel in the world? I find it almost impossible to imagine or comprehend.
But, for people attempting to cross the Channel, this is just one more terrifying step on a journey, over many months and often years, full of fear and exploitation from the moment they were forced to leave their homes through conflict, hunger, discrimination or persecution.
Figures released by the UN’s Refugee Agency in June this year show that more than 33 million people are now living as refugees, or seeking asylum, in a country other than their own. The vast majority are being supported in countries bordering the states they are fleeing. Nine out of 10 refugees live in developing countries where economies and health systems are far more challenged than in Europe.
In March last year, I met Red Cross colleagues in Northern France and talked to people who had left their homes thousands of miles away in search of safety. Many were seeking asylum in France. In fact, the vast majority of people who make it as far as France remain there. In 2019, 151,070 people applied for asylum in France compared to 45,000 in the UK.
For people I met who wanted to reach the UK, despite the dangers, it was often because they had family here or spoke English, or because it was the only place they believed they would feel safe.
AT THE HEART OF ANY RESPONSE MUST BE THE PRESERVATION OF LIFE.
There are no easy answers to the dilemmas presented by people trying to cross the Channel on boats, or people making dangerous journeys in any other parts of the world. But, at the heart of any response, must be the preservation of life. So far, there have not been any reported incidents of people losing their lives this year when crossing the Channel. Sadly, this is not the case in other parts of the world, with 1,504 deaths recorded as people are making a migration journey, 443 in the Mediterranean alone in 2020.
But we have to find solutions and that relies on countries working together, now more than ever, to provide the best humanitarian response, for the one percent of the world’s population that has been displaced.
BEHIND EACH STATISTIC IS A PERSON WITH HOPES AND FEARS, FAMILY AND FRIENDS.
The Red Cross looks after people on the move around the world offering food, shelter and providing information so that they can make informed choices, not just decisions based on fear. And what we see is that behind each statistic is a person, a human being, someone just like me or you, with hopes and fears, with families and friends.
I’ve been reflecting on those conversations I had in Northern France, as well as with refugees and people seeking asylum here in the UK. Three things stand out that would support a better humanitarian response to this situation.
PEOPLE FLEEING DANGER NEED TIME AND SPACE TO MAKE DECISIONS.
Firstly, people fleeing danger need time and space to make decisions about what they want to do next. They need to be protected and given safe places to sleep, something to eat and time to think about their options, or risk falling prey to robbers, smugglers and traffickers.
Secondly, they need viable alternatives, including access to asylum systems in whichever country they are in, and ways to reach safety without having to make dangerous journeys at all. An example of this is the Syrian Resettlement Scheme which has provided more than 20,000 refugees with a home in the UK since 2015, or the family reunion rules that help families who have been torn apart to be reunited again.
The third thing they need is empathy. If you’ve survived conflict, persecution, brutality or worse and believe the UK is where you will find security and rebuild your life, people may well risk their lives again, believing they have little left to lose.
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