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Immigration Week: The Costs Of Bashing Immigration

6th January 2014

With the Immigration Bill going through the House in the new year, Sarah Teather MP discusses the costs of anti-immigration policies in the UK and across Europe

Immigration has been a major political topic in the UK during 2013. Yet despite all the evidence which shows that immigration has a positive impact on the British economy and the lip service that politicians from all parties pay to the benefits of diversity in our society, most of the debate has been about how we can prevent people from coming here or how we can force people to return home.

The Immigration Bill – which is due for its next stage of debate in the House of Commons in the new year – will, amongst other things, make it much harder for people to challenge wrong decisions by the Home Office (despite successful appeal rates being exceptionally high) and make it much harder for anyone who looks or sounds a bit foreign to rent a house.

It’s not just in the UK that policies such as these are being introduced. Right across Europe, and further afield, hostility to “outsiders” is growing, with new barriers to migration being erected. But what is frequently ignored is the human costs of making it harder for individuals to cross borders.

One of the consequences of taking away legitimate routes to migration is that individuals are forced to taking bigger risks and 2013 is considered to be the worst year on record in terms of lives lost of migrants seeking to cross international borders clandestinely. At least 2,360 migrants have died in this way during this year, including more than 360 men, women and children who died in October when the fishing boat they were on boat sank off of the coast of Lampedusa.

Yet the political reaction following such tragedies, after saying how awful it is, tends to be focused on how to stop people ever starting their journeys in the first place, rather than how governments can work together to make journeys safer.

This reaction has also been evident in the UK’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis. The UN say the conflict in Syria has created the world’s worst refugee crisis in 20 years, with at least 2.2 million people having fled the country and millions more displaced internally. The British government has, in fairness, provided substantial financial support with bordering countries to help ease the burden of providing support to so many people, most of whom have left their homes with next to nothing.

Yet the UK has refused to take part in the UNHCR’s call for the most vulnerable 30,000 Syrian refugees to be resettled by the end of 2014. To date, 16 countries have answered this call, with Germany offering to take an extra 5,000 refugees.

The UK’s response to both the Lampedusa tragedy and the Syrian crisis has been to support calls for action to be taken, so long as that action is many miles away. The problem with this approach is that, when coupled with steps to make it harder to legitimately gain access to the UK, people are forced to take ever more dangerous risks.

Part of this reaction is based on the thought that, when migrants make the decision to leave their homes and cross borders, they are exercising choice. But in many instances, this is far from the reality.

On 18 December, to mark United Nations’ International Migrants Day, I took part in an event in Westminster in an act of solidarity with those who make dangerous journeys in search of a better life, and with those who never make it. Along with other MPs and a number of religious leaders, I sailed along the Thames, past the Houses of Parliament, in a migrant boat.

This boat has a remarkable story. Originally a North African fishing boat, in March 2012 human traffickers used it to sail from North Africa heading towards Lampedusa. Crammed on board were 36 migrants, including three children and a heavily pregnant woman.

Once it got close to the coast of Lampedusa, the boat was seized by local officials and its passengers were taken ashore to be processed. A British artist who had been living on the island, Lucy Wood, managed to get hold of the boat before sailing 4,000 miles to London to raise awareness of the experiences and dangerous journeys that migrants have to go through.

Even on the relatively calm Thames, the boat rose and fell with just the smallest of waves and I am sure I would have felt seasick on a longer journey. Due to health and safety regulations along the river, we were only allowed 7 passengers on board. It’s hard to imagine how 36 people managed to fit on this tiny boat, let alone cope with the journey.

For me, my short time on the boat gave me some insight into just how desperate anybody who makes this type of journey must be. It is not a journey anyone would choose to take, but a decision made when there are no other choices left; when all hope is gone.

The outcome of this reality is that countries such as the UK and its European counterparts cannot stop people from making these dangerous journeys by trying to prevent them from ever setting off from their homes. Instead, migrants have safe and legal ways of being able to enter Britain, as well as the rest of Europe, rather than creating an increasing number of barriers as is currently the case.

With 2014 already here I hope that, through political leadership and international cooperation, we can ensure that a new record for migrant deaths is not set.

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