From the Editor, The Tablet, 17 October 2020
Looking out to sea from the Port of Dover, it is possible to discern the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the retreat by Britain from the civilised and humane treatment of migrants. Hundreds have crossed the English Channel in small boats this year, often no more than frail rubber dinghies with outboard motors, in a desperate effort to stand on British soil. The government increasingly sees it as its duty, doubtless presuming the backing of public opinion, to thwart them by any lawful means, including using the Royal Navy to intercept them. It has even contemplated opening concentration camps for them on remote Atlantic islands. Such an attitude is shameful and unworthy of the United Kingdom.
In order to qualify for the right to claim asylum, migrants have to be physically present on dry land. This is a peculiar quirk of international law that the UK, and many other countries, have ruthlessly exploited. The goal it sets for the authorities is to turn these boats back before they reach the shore. Halfway across the Channel they leave French territorial waters and become the UK’s responsibility.
In a submission to the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales spoke up for human decency when it stated: “The current tendency to suggest that people should remain in France, Greece or other supposedly ‘safe countries’ is oversimplistic and ignores the lived realities of those risking their lives to reach our shores.” Coercive measures will only increase the dangers, not reduce the flow.
The Catholic Church has had a particular experience of immigration, not only from Ireland but from Poland and other Eastern European countries. It is therefore uniquely placed to bear witness to the“… turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery …”, to use another phrase from Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”, that generates migration flows in the modern world. There is nothing in sight that will subdue them, which makes the British effort in the English Channel seem particularly fatuous and misconceived.
In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis hits the nail on the head: “No one will ever openly deny that [migrants] are human beings, yet in practice, by our decisions and the way we treat them, we can show that we consider them less worthy, less important, less human. For Christians … this sets certain political preferences above deep convictions of our faith: the inalienable dignity of each human person regardless of origin, race or religion, and the supreme law of fraternal love.”
The alternative to the dangerous game of cat and mouse between rubber dinghies and government patrol boats, as the bishops explain, is simply to allow asylum claims to be registered abroad. Those accepted would then have a safe and legal route into the UK, which can be properly managed in a dignified way.
The man given the job of turning migrants’ boats back is former Royal Marine officer Dan O’Mahoney. He recently told The Daily Telegraph: “The vast majority of people seeking refuge in the UK are genuine asylum seekers. And they come from incredibly difficult conditions in the country … and I have a huge amount of sympathy for that.”
The point is they are no “threat” to anyone. So why not let them claim asylum in Britain without having to face this dangerous passage across the open sea?