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11 January 2019

The Channel Crossings: The Home Secretary should know better

“You’re coming from France, which is a safe country…if you were a real genuine asylum seeker then you could have done that in another safe country.” These were the words of Sajid Javid on cutting short his holiday to designate a few hundred asylum seekers crossing the channel a ‘major incident’.

As Home Secretary, Mr Javid should know better than to pre-judge someone’s right to asylum. And he should know better than to call this a crisis. 539 people attempted to travel to the UK by boat last year, compared to 822 refugees who landed in the Greek islands in just one week in December.

Yet there are some who feel the Home Secretary has a point, why should we give asylum to people crossing from France? Isn’t France a safe country after all?

Safe Passage works with refugees across Europe including in Northern France who have made other dangerous journeys. If the Home Secretary wants to understand what motivates a parent, a loved-one, a child to take such risks, he only need listen to just one of their stories.

“Dawit” was 15 when he arrived in Europe. Orphaned and having fled the brutal regime in Eritrea he travelled thousands of miles with the aim of reaching his aunt in Britain.

In October 2016, Dawit was one of hundreds of unaccompanied children residing in the Calais ‘jungle’. When the camp was demolished, the Home Office unlawfully denied him his legal right to safely reunite with his aunt. Having been failed by the UK and French Governments, Dawit found himself street homeless in France, battled tuberculosis and pneumonia and has since been diagnosed with PTSD.

Two and a half years after he became known to the UK authorities, Dawit is still not in the UK with his aunt. This is despite being told he would be reunited with his aunt under EU-wide family reunion laws late last year, after the intervention of Safe Passage and his lawyers. Two and a half years later he is still waiting for the UK and French authorities just to fulfil their basic legal obligations.

Most of the young people we work with are trying to reunite with families in the UK. They tell us stories of being tear-gassed, bitten by police dogs and suffering hypothermia whilst sleeping outside in the cold in France. To a young person fleeing for their life, trying to reach their aunt in the UK, France may not seem like a very safe country.

Imagine telling a teenager there is a safe and legal way for them to reunite with their sole surviving relative and re-start their life, but they have to wait over three years to access it, and in the meantime, risk homelessness, violence, infectious disease and exploitation.

Now imagine that teen is surrounded by so-called “friends” who for a price guarantee they could be across the channel and with his family within a day. There’s simply no contest.

The Home Secretary rightly condemned the people smugglers who exploit desperation and trade in human lives. But he should realise that what these operatives fear most isn’t warships and wire fencing, it’s effective safe and legal routes that reunite families, and help refugees escape the hopelessness of a life spent in a makeshift camp.

Next year the Vulnerable Persons and Vulnerable Children’s resettlement schemes and the Dubs scheme are all due to be wound down, closing two safe and legal routes to protection. Possibly forcing even more people to risk their lives in the English Channel.

If the Home Secretary really is committed to deterring dangerous journeys he should use this moment to announce a new and ambitious programme of resettlement, that provides families and unaccompanied children a genuine route to protection in the UK. He should reform our family reunion rules to allow refugees to reunite safely and quickly with family in the UK rather than risk their lives in the hands of smugglers, and he should end the scandal of children waiting years in Northern France to reunite with loved ones here in the UK.

– Beth Gardiner-Smith, Safe Passage CEO