Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Reflecting on Deaths in the Channel: One Year On


Time to read

5 Minutes

Post by Ali Ghaderi and Vicky Taylor. Ali is an advocate with lived experience of navigating the UK’s asylum system and founder of the Babylon Project, an organisation led by people with asylum seeking, refugee, and migrant backgrounds. You can also find them on Instagram. Ali is on Twitter and Instagram. Vicky is a DPhil Candidate and Associate Director at Border Criminologies.

Loup Blaster
Image by Loup Blaster (https://loupblaster.art/)

On Wednesday 24th November 2021, at least 27 people died attempting to cross the English Channel to reach the UK. This was the worst mass drowning in the Channel since records started in 2014, with 17 men, 7 women (one pregnant) and 3 children reported to have lost their lives. Most were from Iraqi Kurdistan, with others from Somalia, Afghanistan, Egypt and Vietnam. Their names are:

Kazhal Ahmed Khidhir, mother of: Hadiya Rzgar Hussein, 22; Mubin Rzgar Hussein, 16; and Hasti Rzgar Hussein, 7.

Baran Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin, 24; Mhabad Ahmad Ali, 32; Rezhwan Yasin Hassan,19; and Mohammed Qadir Aulla, 21.

Deniz Afrasia Ahmed Mohammed, 27; Bilind Shukir Baker, 20; “Hybar” Bryar Hamad Abdulrahman, 23; Harem Serkaut Perot Muhammad, 28; and Hassan Mohammed Ali, 37.

Mohammed Hussein Mohammed, 19; Muslim Ismael Hamad, 19; Shakar Ali Pirot, 30; Sirwan Alipour, 23; Zanyar Mustafa Mina, 20; Pshtiwan Rasul Farka, 18; and Twana Mamand Mohammed, 18.

At least 7 others remain unnamed. Two from the boat survived: Mohammed Isa Omar and Mohammed Shekha. They have recounted their story to media outlets.

Unnamed are the many others who have lost their lives attempting to make the journey to the UK, and whose lives did not catch media attention.

Also unnamed are others who have died within the UK, not just at the physical border, in accommodation, hotels, and detention sites across the country.

The following day, then Home Secretary, Priti Patel, made a statement in the House of Commons about the deaths. She used the tragedy to justify two of her flagship policies: pushbacks at sea, and the Nationality and Borders Act. Both policies have been widely criticised as containing elements inconsistent with the UK’s obligations under international law. The following reflections have come from several conversations between the two authors. One year on from this tragedy, we tried to make sense of what has changed and stayed the same, as well as where the future of protection stands in the UK.

So where are we one year on?

For most of us it has been a long year, but for those waiting in the asylum system time moves even slower. Despite the Home Office’s target of 6 months, it currently takes the department between one and three years to reach initial decisions on most cases. Only 4% of claims made by those who arrived by boat in 2021 have been processed and an initial decision granted (as of October 2022). The remaining 96% wait with no right to work, and without the assurance and stability of a decided future in the UK. The combination of slow and poor-quality decision-making, with poorly managed asylum accommodation and minimal financial support, has been described by some academic commentators as a form of ‘slow violence’.

Indeed, despite the Home Office’s repeated insistence that the UK has ‘a long history of supporting those in need of protection’, this is not the lived experience of most of those currently attempting to access such protection. Ali notes, ‘the government doesn’t want us. That’s the first thing’. The New Plan for Immigration is clear that a ‘firm and fair’ asylum system must involve aspects of deterrence. In other words, making circumstances for those who do reach the UK difficult to discourage others from making the journey. With this blatant logic, it is hard not to see reports of inhumane conditions in places such as the Manston processing centre in Kent, and the mismanagement of asylum accommodation, as part of this ‘slow violence’. As we wait for more information on the death of a man detained at Manston processing centre this week, it is clear that deaths and injury in the Channel cannot be disentangled from the deaths and injuries caused elsewhere due to policies designed to deter, detain, or deteriorate the human will to live and stay in the UK.

Despite the government’s persistence with hard-line ‘deterrence’ policies, including plans to ship people seeking asylum across the world to Rwanda (or elsewhere), people continue to risk their lives by crossing the English Channel. Recent statistics show that the vast majority (93% of those who arrived this year) claim asylum upon arrival. In doing so they are exercising their right to seek asylum. As other legal commentators have repeated, there is no legal duty or obligation on people seeking asylum to claim and remain in the ‘first safe country’ they enter. Deterrence policies, as even Home Office research itself has shown, cannot prevent people arriving to claim asylum.

The UK needs to expand resettlement routes to the UK if it wishes to reduce the number of people travelling through dangerous means to reach family and friends. While on paper there are 9 resettlement routes available, in reality these provide protection to a comparably small group of people. Five are country specific (targeting people in Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Ukraine), three are currently operating significantly below target (for example, just two people were resettled via the Mandate Scheme in 2021). The final scheme is Refugee Family Reunion, which is meant to prevent children making dangerous journeys. However, children cannot sponsor their parents, adding to the number of long-term unaccompanied children in the UK social care system. And despite the government’s narrative of investment in ‘safe and legal routes’, doors to reunion are closing fast. Post-Brexit, the Dublin II regulation which enabled families to be reunited from within Europe is now inaccessible to people in the UK. Changes coming into force through the Nationality and Border Act will mean that those who have arrived via boat will not be able to access pathways to family reunion. We therefore question the government’s commitment to providing ‘safe and legal routes’.

Finding hope for the next year

There are, however, glimpses of how things could and should be. Despite the government’s rhetoric, the most recent national survey (Ipsos Mori and British Futures, Jan-Feb 2022, before Ukraine) found that more Britons think positively, rather than negatively, about the impact of immigration, and a majority report having sympathy for people attempting to cross the English Channel. Research elsewhere has also found that the majority of the public believe the Rwanda scheme is unworkable, unlikely to deter people crossing the Channel, and unprincipled.

The public’s response to housing and caring for people displaced from Ukraine is perhaps a model to follow in terms of harnessing this empathy. However, it has also revealed deep inconsistencies in how ‘charity’ manifests. Those stuck within the mainstream asylum system cannot benefit from many of the tailored services set up to support Ukrainians in building new lives in the UK. There is a clear hierarchy of deservingness materialising in the day-to-day experiences of people seeking asylum in the UK.

Babylon workshop
Image from a recent Babylon creative workshop

We find hope, therefore, in the spaces of solidarity and community created in spite of the UK’s hostile environment, particularly those which seek to dissolve or unsettle state-imposed borders between refugee/migrant/citizen. Ali recently founded the Babylon Project, a refugee-led organisation running creative projects to empower people within the community in London. In the face of slow violence comes creative resistance.

Babylon workshop
Image from a recent Babylon creative workshop

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

A. Ghaderi and V. Taylor. (2022) Reflecting on Deaths in the Channel: One Year On. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2022/11/reflecting-deaths-channel-one-year. Accessed on: 26/05/2024

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