Many hundreds joined the protest at the Home Office initiated by Sisters Uncut on 25 November, to mourn and denounce the deaths of 27 refugees in the Channel the day before. Hundreds joined a Stand Up to Racism rally at Downing Street on the 27th. There have been protests around the country.
The PCS civil service union has joined a legal challenge to the Tories’s “pushback” policy, and says: “If the government does not abandon this appalling approach, we will pursue all legal avenues including a judicial review... PCS will not rule out all forms of industrial action, including disrupting the implementation of the Pushback policy if the Home Secretary insists on going ahead.” Even though most workers at the sharp end of Border Force work are in a right-wing breakaway union, this is a big step forward in labour movement response. We need more, in the streets as well as in the courts.
The Nationality and Borders Bill, returning soon to the House of Commons for its final vote before it goes to the Lords, will make a dire situation even worse.
Boris Johnson said he was “shocked, appalled and deeply saddened [by the deaths]. Now is the time... to stop these gangs who are getting away with murder.” He meant the people who arrange makeshift boats for the desperate refugees denied safe routes. The British government is a much bigger gang getting away with murder. It has conspired with the French government to kill, in one incident, twice as many as are known to have died so far in the stand-off on the Poland-Belarus border.
Refugee rights organisations have pointed out that there are now essentially no safe, legal routes by which people seeking asylum can reach the UK. Even the stingy resettlement scheme for Afghan refugees which the government made so much of in August is still not operational — and there is no date for it to be operational.
The realities which create refugees are not going to disappear; in many parts of the world they are getting worse. So people smuggling will inevitably flourish — until the opening of safe routes for people diminishes it. Until then, smuggling is in fact a sort of lesser evil, as against governments’ attempts to prevent people reaching safety and security.
Our touchstone should be free movement and equal rights for all. We agree with Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome: “Even if, rather than fleeing war or persecution, someone moves for a better life — we should welcome them.”
At the moment, things are moving fast in the other direction. If it goes through unamended, the Nationality and Borders Bill will institute discrimination against all refugees who arrive in the UK by other than the almost non-existent safe and legal routes. It will also further criminalise those who aid people coming to the UK, including by helping those in difficulty in British waters. The government knows this will create more suffering, more deaths and more business for petty profiteers. It does not care.
Since the deaths on 24 November, Labour has suggested vaguely that the Tories are inhumane. But literally two days earlier Starmer and shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds were much closer to condemning the Tories for failing to implement inhumane policies with enough vigour.
Another, very big reason for Labour and trade union activists to call Starmer and co. to account.