A decade ago, on 3 October 2013, a boat carrying migrants caught fire and sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa; 366 people died. It was not the first migrant disaster in the Mediterranean – at least 12,000 migrants had drowned in the previous 20 years. But the sheer scale of the Lampedusa tragedy generated widespread horror.
The Italian government declared a national day of mourning. “I hope that this will be the last time we see a tragedy of this kind,” said Jean-Claude Mignon, head of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly.
Of course it wasn’t. Over the past decade, at least 25,000 more people have drowned making the crossing.
Now, the English Channel has joined the Mediterranean as a graveyard for migrants. Last week, four more drowned after their boat capsized in the dead of night. At least 47 people have lost their lives crossing the Channel since 2019.
And last week, as after the Lampedusa disaster, as after every major disaster involving migrants, politicians and commentators expressed their horror. “These are the days we dread,” home secretary Suella Braverman told parliament. That is why, she added, “we are working so hard to destroy the business model of the people smugglers, evil, organised criminals who treat human beings as cargo”.
People smugglers make a convenient target. They are odious and have little concern for those who entrust them with their lives. But why is there a market for such people in the first place?
Central to the immigration policies of western nations has been the strategy of “deterrence”, of making life as difficult as possible for irregular migrants, to discourage them from embarking on their journeys. It’s what underlies policies from the “hostile environment” to “offshoring”.
Study after study after study has shown that deterrence does not deter. It merely forces people to take more dangerous routes – and to turn to people smugglers. It is immigration policy, in other words, that has created opportunities for people smugglers. And deaths are the inevitable consequence. The implicit message of deterrence, though one that few will express aloud, is that the tens of thousands of deaths are an unfortunate but necessary signal to warn off migrants. That is why governments on both sides of the Atlantic have persecuted and prosecuted volunteers who aid or rescue migrants.
Moral sensibilities have become so warped by the migration panic that many no longer care about the odiousness of these policies. Not so long ago, support for the forcible deportation of anyone who arrived without proper papers to a country to which none of them had ever been, or wanted to go, and dismissing out of hand, without considering any facts, their claim for asylum in this country, would have been limited to the far-right fringes.
Now it is supported by mainstream conservative thinktanks. The latest report from the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), co-authored by former Downing Street chief of staff Nick Timothy, demands the “indefinite detention of all asylum seekers who enter the country illegally” and their removal to Rwanda. But, as Tim Loughton, Tory MP and a member of the home affairs committee, pointed out to a flummoxed Braverman recently, in most cases the only way to claim asylum in Britain is by arriving here “illegally”. The CPS is, in effect, calling for the indefinite detention of anyone who comes to Britain seeking asylum.
The Times columnist Matthew Parris thought the CPS policies “brutal” but could “see no other way”. Academic Matthew Goodwin backed the report, too, describing the Rwanda policy as “hard humanitarianism”. It takes considerable moral distortion to view forced relocation and exile as a “humanitarian” measure, whether easy or hard.
In any case, Home Office research itself shows that the Rwanda policy is unlikely to work. An internal report, finally published earlier this year, noted that “asylum seekers have little to no understanding of current asylum policies”. A policy of mass deportation will not deter migrants who have not heard of it. A report by MPs came to the same conclusion.
The Rwanda plan, though, is not about formulating workable policy. It is about creating a theatre of cruelty, about being seen to crush migrant hopes “with a sickening thump”, as Parris puts it. And so, realistic proposals, such as finding sufficient resources to clear the asylum backlog and creating proper legal routes for asylum seekers, have been jettisoned in favour of policy as spectacle.
Two arguments underlie the “there is no other way” claim. The first is “we can’t allow everyone in”. “Our capacity in this country is not infinite,” Braverman told parliament, “We cannot accept everyone who wishes to come here.”
But everyone isn’t coming here. The number of people claiming asylum last year was barely half the figure for 2002. Four out of five refugees are hosted by developing countries and three-quarters of those displaced abroad live in neighbouring countries. Of asylum seekers who do come to Europe, just 8% seek refuge in the UK. The number of people claiming asylum in Britain last year amounted to 0.1% of the UK population.
The second argument used to back the need for brutal measures is that the public supports such hard policies. It is true that more liberal policies require a democratic mandate. The willingness of politicians and policymakers to exaggerate numbers, to present irregular migration as an “invasion” and to foment panics, has inevitably shaped public opinion (though polls have shown that the public is not necessarily supportive of the Rwanda policy and more prefer “fairness” to “deterrence”). Rather than taking a stand to win support for moral and workable policies, politicians and commentators prefer to exploit public anxieties that they themselves have nurtured as an alibi for the pursuit of even more brutal policies.
In 2013, I observed that “the next time there is another tragedy as at Lampedusa – and there will be a next time and a next time after that – and politicians across Europe express shock and grief and anger, remember this: they could have helped prevent it and chose not to. That is the real disgrace.” It still is. And it will continue to be so for as long as policymakers and commentators prefer the theatre of cruelty to workable policy.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist
Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org