Britain’s refusal to save migrants is an act of inhumanity

Published by The Guardian (29th October 2014)

Last year a wealthy couple called Regina and Christopher Catrambone were cruising the Mediterranean when they saw a jacket float past their yacht. The captain said the owner was probably dead, one of thousands of desperate people who drown each year as they seek a decent life in Europe. Soon after their holiday, inspired by this glimpse of tragedy and Pope Francis’s appeal to help migrants, the pair spent £3m on a rescue ship for refugees.

This inspiring couple from Malta are modern-day Good Samaritans. Their 40-metre vessel is equipped with a sick bay, drones to spot migrants adrift in the sea, and fast boats to pluck them from the waters. On its first trip two months ago, the ship picked up 227 migrants crammed on to a floundering fishing boat – just a few of those thousands of human beings fleeing carnage in Syria, chaos in Iraq, civil war in Libya, conflict in Nigeria and cruel repression in the horn of Africa. Another 300 were saved on Monday.

Contrast this compelling display of Christian values with the shameful position of our government. In response to the greatest refugee crisis in more than half a century, a foreign office minister told the House of Lords that Britain would not support European search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean sea. The little-known Lady Anelay justified this act of despicable inhumanity on the entirely spurious grounds that such missions might end up encouraging migrants to make a dangerous sea crossing.

Her argument was skewered this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme by Daniel Habtey, an Eritrean pastor who fled Africa’s most repressive country after churches were closed and he was put in a prison camp. These were the hostile actions that drove him to flee his nation with his wife and infant child; together, they spent 15 days crossing the Sahara desert before joining nearly 80 others on that perilous Mediterranean crossing. Similar horrors lie behind the stories of many of the 400 migrants pulled from the waters each day, or the more than 2,500 known to have drowned there so far this year. Many more deaths go unrecorded.

Forget talk of benefits tourism. I have heard similar tales of desperation and despair from migrants locked up in Greek jails, stuck in Jordanian refugee camps, and waiting for a boat in Libyan seaside towns – as well as from those who have made it to this land that once took such pride in its status as a refuge for those fleeing conflict and repression. And we must not ignore that Britain was militarily involved in collapsed countries such as Iraq and Libya, while idiotic aid policies foster conflict and repression in swaths of sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet such is the toxic nature of the immigration debate poisoning the political discourse in Britain that a minister happily announces the nation’s refusal to back a mission designed to save thousands of human lives. No doubt the concept of European Union patrols made the idea all the less palatable amid the political games of Westminster. But this is abject and cynical politics, placing domestic electoral battles over the decency and principles our national leaders purport to espouse.

Yet do not be surprised, for this is what happens when mainstream politicians fail to confront the myths and misinformation of misanthropes. This is the hideous consequence of mainstream parties spooked by Ukip joining a bidding war to be most hostile to migrants instead of challenging the prejudices of a party playing on people’s insecurities. This is the result of crass talk of communities being “swamped” (along with the rise in racism and religious bigotry identified by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.) This is the legacy of lionising and ennobling a narrow-minded immigration obsessive. This is the tragic inevitability of a politics fuelled by fear and pessimism.

There is a terrible irony in how recent British governments have made such play of being forces for good in the world, whether through military interventions against despotism or maintaining those aid budgets, but the same politicians treat human beings fleeing in search of tolerable lives like flotsam and jetsam to be discarded in the seas. For all the impassioned talk on Syria, the latest figures show less than 100 of that shattered nation’s most vulnerable refugees have been allowed to reach these shores under a scheme announced to help them seven months ago. Germany, by contrast, is taking in 20,000 Syrians.

Britain must resolve whether it wants to remain an open and optimistic force in the world or curl up like a defensive hedgehog, showing only prickles to the rest of the planet. Is it too much to hope a nation still admired for its decency could be jolted to its senses by the dark immorality of a decision that places party politics above the deaths of desperate people?

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