What do reactions to the English Channel migrants hide about migration?
Much has been made of migrants entering the UK from across the English Channel by the media and politicians, but migration is more complicated than we are led to believe.
Unprecedented numbers of migrants were reported to be entering the UK in boats in August, with migrants continuing to make the journey this winter. In recent years, it has become somewhat less unusual to have periods with high numbers of irregular migration through unconventional means. However, this does not mean that we should become desensitised to the plights of such migrants or how governments and media outlets seek to twist what is essentially human desperation to mould it to fit their own agenda.
It is highly unlikely to be a complete coincidence that the media is often more focused on shooting videos of migrants arriving in boats than the humanity behind the issue. An example is the sterile interviews and reporting on migrants in a vox pop style at the end of a summer that saw more deaths from COVID-19, increasing unemployment, a shrinking economy, and a disastrous attempt at standardising A-Level and GCSE grades. Whilst the media is independent from the government, the government can also shape media discourse through social media, and through the extent to which they respond to issues. It is therefore not out of the question that particular attention is being drawn to these scapegoated migrants to take the public’s ire away from the government, and towards this ‘threat’ instead.
Hostile discourse promoted by, amongst others, the Home Secretary sees potential refugees and asylum seekers making the perilous journey by boat as dangerous threats that necessitates appointing a ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’ and almost certainly breaking international law by sending the Royal Navy to the Channel. The problem with migrants and migration is that the government rarely takes substantive action on (in particular, irregular) immigration, but needs to be seen to be strongly against migrants to satisfy the fears of voters who are suspicious of migrants and the associated societal ‘threat’. Migration is a product of human behaviour, which is not logical and cannot be easily controlled by policy. Irregular migration is particularly difficult to concisely conceptualise, as there is a certain level of panic and desperation that accompanies risking death to be reunited with family or find a better life.
There will always be irregular migrants. The solution is therefore to create safe legal routes to the UK, instead of increasingly restricting legal methods seeking asylum, and forcing migrants into the hands of exploitative smugglers or taking dangerous routes to the UK. The government may, in fact, have more control over migration if they introduced safe routes, as it would reduce the incentive to use covert or irregular means. This can be complicated to explain, and certainly goes against the idea of migrants being economic migrants that bring danger to the UK (rather than the opposite). The government therefore instead emphasises the idea of any harms from irregular migration coming from smugglers.
In reality, the government’s restrictive policies and the discriminatory treatment of migrants are the real dangers. During the summer, the Home Secretary infamously posted a tweet on gangs and smugglers in response to the news of a 16-year old Sudanese boy being found dead in Calais after trying to make the boat journey to the UK. A boy died as a result of this country’s treatment of migrants. Smugglers are a problem, but the real problem is the lack of safe routes or humanity with which migrants are treated. If there were only safe routes to the UK, there would be no smugglers. There are reports of police brutality against migrants in France, and a migrant was attacked almost immediately after he set foot in the UK. It is hard to reconcile these headlines with other headlines that tell us that migrants somehow have easy lives as soon as they make it to the UK, or that it is an easy journey to make. These migrants deserve better than a government that does not respond to NGOs or the voices of migrants.
Migrants need safe ways to enter the UK. When they are here, we must treat them kindness and help them to adjust to a life in a strange country with strange customs, instead of scapegoating them or using them as a distraction tactic. At JAN Trust, we work to empower migrants, refugees and marginalised groups so that they can play active roles in their communities. We put our beneficiaries first because everyone deserves to be treated equally and to be given a voice.