A Reflection for our October Month of Action
Felicity Laurence, Campaigns and Communication, HCoS
“And can I see another’s woe, and not be in sorrow too? Can I see another’s grief, and not seek for kind relief?”
– from the poem On Another’s Sorrow by William Blake
Many people in Hastings have been moved and concerned to see so many fellow human beings risking their lives day after day to get to our shores, from the first boats in spring, all through the long summer and even into autumn, and often very near us. The kindness of such people is beautifully exemplified in the recent story from Fairlight Glen Beach, where a boat appeared, was pulled safely ashore, and the people arriving offered a compassionate welcome and hot drinks by those helping them land safely – with the unusual aspect that this is a naturist beach: an example of naked humanity in its most literal sense. As one comment put it so simply: “Some human beings help some other human beings”. A few years ago, watching refugees coming ashore in Lampedusa, the late, great and profoundly humane A.A. Gill observed:
“The reason the Lampedusans are kind and good to these desperate visitors is because they can be. They’ve met them and they see them; the reason we can talk about ‘them’ as a problem, a plague on our borders, is because we don’t see them. If any of these refugees knocked on any of our front doors and asked for help, we would give it. We would insist they be protected and offered a chance to be doctors and civil engineers, nurses and journalists. We would do it because we are also good and kind. It is only by not looking, by turning our backs, that we can sail away and think that this is sad, but it is not our sadness.” (A.A. Gill, 2013)
But the reality is that we in Hastings find ourselves on the frontline of a phenomenon which is creating a backlash far beyond our town, right across the country and even into France and Europe beyond.
The following reflection gives a few basic facts and figures, and a selection of responses over recent months from across our community to what we have been seeing.
What’s been happening, and some facts of the matter
During the past Covid-dominated months, and with other ways of reaching the UK nearly impossible, many desperate people, including families with young children and unaccompanied young people in their teens, have risked their lives to cross the sea in small boats so that they might be able to claim asylum here, having fled from war and persecution. Many have specific reasons for wanting to be in the UK: family ties (often when they have no other family left alive anywhere else in the world): or knowledge of the language, and therefore the belief that there would be a better chance of adapting to our culture and contributing to it. All would prefer to be able to come here safely and legally, but our government’s policies on claiming asylum make this impossible for those who reach Calais: you have to get into the UK before you can ask for asylum, and you cannot do this at the UK’s border post in Calais itself. Thus the people hoping to reach the UK (a really small proportion of those entering Europe) are caught between a rock and a hard place.
The Home Office has recently confirmed that 98% of those arriving in the boats are from countries and situations accepted as mortally dangerous, and so have strong and legitimate claims for asylum. No one can therefore doubt their desperation or their suffering.
But the government is now talking of changing the law in order to deport as many people as possible back to a European country they have previously passed through. This is currently unlawful except in a very small number of cases, as it is simply not the case that refugees must claim asylum in the first ‘safe’ country they enter (not that Greece, or Italy, or France can really be considered ‘safe’ for thousands of people seeking refuge in those countries). Lawyers are being attacked by the Government for making ‘vexatious’ appeals to prevent such unlawful deportations – when in fact they are simply following our own laws. It is up to the judge of the court to decide, and time and again, judges decide against the Home Office in these cases.
This Government response thus undermines the human and legal rights of those who seek asylum; there has also been a recent and swift militarisation of the attempts at deterrence of the Channel crossings. Ultimately, we face the sight of the people in the boats being sent back as soon as they land, or even while they are still at sea, with no possibility of anyone in them claiming asylum. This is happening in Greece, with the calamitous physical pushing of boats back into the water: a clear and brutal transgression of EU and international law.
Here are some quick facts worth knowing.
- Asylum applications this year are not only well down from last year, but in fact at a 10-year low. The increase in Channel crossings must be seen in that context. Overall in 2020, despite the increase in Channel crossings, there have been far fewer people claiming asylum in the UK than usual.
- In proportion to our population, the UK has almost the lowest numbers of refugees in Europe overall. In terms of how many refugees are accepted per thousand people, Sweden and Germany have the highest proportion; between 2016-2019, Sweden took twelve refugees per thousand residents, in Germany, ten per thousand; but in the UK, only one person per thousand. This put our country 20th of the European countries.
- More than 46,000 people seeking asylum here are waiting for a decision on their claim, most having arrived a long time ago and asked for asylum – last year, or the year before that, or years before that again. While waiting, almost none are permitted to work (this being a criminal offence if they do so illegally) and are compelled to survive on the allotted £5.66 a day for food and daily needs. Thousands of these people are critical workers, health workers, medical workers, who all wish to work and contribute to their own upkeep and to our society.
- People often feel – and are – forced to enter the UK by an illegal route; but all have the right in international law to claim asylum once they reach any country. They cannot in law be regarded themselves as ‘illegal’ and nor, in law, may they be penalised for their manner of entry.
How we have been responding
People in Hastings have varied reactions to these events. Here are some examples of the many expressions of concern and empathy – made publicly in the media, in letters to our MP, and in discussions on social media.
From Jane Grimshaw, Co-Chair of Hastings Community of Sanctuary (HCoS) and founder of Hastings Supports Refugees: “[…] The suggestion of involving the Royal Navy to intercept boats full of vulnerable people, many of whom have fled war, aggression and persecution by the military is inappropriate.
[…]There is no legal way for those seeking asylum to get to the UK from mainland Europe. This then drives desperate people to desperate and dangerous methods to get here. People smuggling is rife on the Northern French coast, often using violent means to part vulnerable people with funds to pay to cross the busiest shipping lanes in the world in a small rubber dinghy. To quote Care4Calais, the NGO working with refugees on the ground in France: “They don’t want to ‘sneak’ into our country – all they want is a fair hearing for their claims”.
We feel a better use of the UK’s resources would be to work with French authorities to develop a safe and secure way for people to be able to claim asylum rather than militarising what is a humanitarian problem.” (See full article in Hastings in Focus here).
From a letter to the Guardian (Felicity Laurence, HCoS):
“[Immigration Minister] Chris Philps [states that he]’shares’ the public’s anger and frustration’ at the ‘appalling’ number of boat crossing of refugees. What is appalling is his own rhetoric, with which he constantly tries to whip up public resentment and dehumanise the people desperately and dangerously trying to reach the UK. Most are fleeing conflict and persecution; they have no other way of getting here because our Government refuses to provide safe and legal routes. The numbers involved are in fact miniscule when presented as a fraction of our population (0.006%) […]
There is another huge, compassionate public whose anger and frustration is directed not at our beleaguered fellow human beings who seek sanctuary with us, but at a Government which, despite repeated promises to reform its lethally hostile environment, in reality, in seeking to make the Channel route ‘completely unviable’ by whatever means, entrenches it in the most brutal way conceivable.” (see published letter at https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/aug/11/shame-on-those-stoking-fears-about-refugees-migrant-crossings )
From health worker Brian Bostock, who accompanied several Hastings councillors to Calais just before lockdown, writing of the humanity of the people he met there – children, women and men – some of the same people who would subsequently try to reach here on the small boats:
“A Question of Humanity. In January, once again, the people of Hastings outdid themselves in a collection of food and clothing to send to Calais and our own foodbank. I joined councillors Antonia Berelson, Paul Barnett and Ruby Cox to take our collective donation to the charity Care4Calais. We filled up two cars to the brim and set off very early the next morning for the boat trip. The Care4Calais warehouse, a short drive from the port of Calais, is stacked high with donations from all over the UK. Volunteers sort these and prepare packs for distribution to the refugees now occupying irregular camps all along the French north coast. The formal camps at Calais have been removed, but the people are very much still there – men, women and children.” (Read the full story here: https://hastings.cityofsanctuary.org/2020/06/10/a-story-about-calais-june-2020).
From a letter to our MP from HCoS member Annie Angell, soon after a young man drowned trying to cross to the UK:
“Dear Sally-Ann Hart,
[…]Not all your constituents are against receiving refugees from peril on our shores and many of us have been writing to you in support of these poor souls for a while. Now a desperate young life has been lost due to our lack of action. I recognize that you are concerned about the aspect of the tragedy of smuggling gangs. However, as these people cannot make claims for asylum until they are in the UK, they are in a catch-22 situation. […]
Many people from the UK are volunteers in the basic care of the refugees, and many of those are from your constituency. We collect provisions and clothes frequently and some take them across to France and indeed to Greece also. If we want to challenge the smuggling gangs then our government has to be proactive in taking asylum seekers’ claims first-hand in France, or even Greece and extend the processing from the camps in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Eqypt.
Being an island nation should not set us apart from our European neighbours who actually, despite the opinions of the Home Office Ministers, take in 1000s more refugees than we do. I ask you to challenge the current hostile environment of the Home Office and look for legal rights to be ensured and established for asylum seekers (who are not illegal immigrants) by working with the French in France itself.
There are many people in your constituency who are supporting our [resettled] refugees to engage in an economically productive life here, as well as supporting those seeking asylum here.”
From the Refugee Buddy Project Campaign to welcome refugees to our shores:
From our general report on conditions in Calais in April, at the height of the pandemic (read full article here):
“The refugees endure a complete lack of basic sanitation, and have no possibility of self-isolating. Ongoing police hostility is ever more brutal, with constant harassment, confiscation of the already meagre shelter the refugees may possess and direct attacks, including a shocking example a few days ago – (read more about this attack here) – which stretches to breaking point any sense of a common consensus of civility prevailing at this time of global upheaval.
But then – see the other end of the spectrum in the work of support groups, such as Care4Calais: here is Cllr Paul Barnett’s testimony from his pre-lockdown trip to Calais.
‘Two things strike you in Calais: the dedication and energy of the volunteers who come from all over the UK to spend a week or two there, and the gently humility of the refugees who are increasingly being harassed and humiliated by the French authorities’.”
A Month of Action
This then is a snapshot of how things are these days. October will be a ‘month of action’. On Saturday 10th October, we will be holding the next collection of food to send to Calais (and to share with our own foodbank as always) – see https://hastings.cityofsanctuary.org/events/hastings-supports-refugees-food-collection: and working intensively during the month towards a wider understanding of refugees as fellow humans – through our “Conversations from Calais” poster exhibition, through our campaigns for ‘Lift the Ban’ for the right to work for people seeking asylum (here), and for a 28-day limit for immigration detention which causes such intense suffering to so many thousands of people every year (here): and through the Refugee Buddy Project’s Weekend of Celebration on 10th and 11th October.
Here is a last word from a refugee who thanks us for making him feel human again, reaching out to all of us – read the full letter here: https://care4calais.org/news/a-syrian-refugees-heartfelt-open-letter-to-the-uk/.
And please let me ask you, aren’t we all humans? Aren’t we all brothers and sisters? When some pandemic happens like Covid-19, aren’t we all in danger? We are all the residents of this planet. Can’t you see how, if we worked together, hand-by-hand we could make this world a safe place for all.