Eyebrows raised at Priti Patel’s effort to show sympathy for Channel deaths
Just three days later, the home secretary was back in the Commons to give a statement on the 27 men, women and children who had drowned after their rubber boat had capsized the previous day. This time, she tried to be a bit more measured. A bit more human, though sympathy doesn’t come easily to her. The deaths were a shock, though not a surprise, she said. This had been a tragedy waiting to happen. Though not one she had taken many steps to actively prevent. Because yet again, the fault lay fairly and squarely with the smuggling gangs and economic migrants trying to game the system. And, of course, the French. Never forget the French. Everything can usually be traced back to the French.
Not to mention her proposed nationality and borders bill, which would enable anyone caught rescuing such people liable to prosecution, the Home Office’s leaked plans to push small boats back to France using nets and wave machines and plans to create detention centres in Albania and Ascension Island. Hardly a love-bombing welcome to people fleeing war, persecution and environmental disasters.
Labour’s shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, tried to choose his words carefully. After expressing his own sorrow at the drownings and apportioning a fair amount of blame to the people smugglers, he did wonder if maybe the government couldn’t have done rather more to prevent a tragedy that all humanitarian aid agencies had been predicting for over a year.
What had happened to plans for safe routes? Why had we only taken 480 refugees under the Dubs scheme? Why had we cut overseas aid? And was the home secretary aware the nationality and borders bill contravened international conventions on refugees?
Patel chose to ignore most of this. Other than to have another quick go at the French. They were getting a bit better at dealing with refugees, she said, condescendingly, but they badly needed our help. She had offered to set up joint patrols of British and French police on mainland Europe but so far she had been rebuffed. Everyone knew the French weren’t up to the job on their own but it would be jumping the gun for her to assume command of the French border gendarmes. Useful though it might be.
No one had the heart to tell the home secretary that France took many more refugees than the UK. Not least Iain Duncan Smith and David Davis, who were also keen to pile on to the French. “The home secretary has strained every sinew to prevent this,” Davis said.
One hates to think of how many more might have died if Priti Vacant hadn’t had their best interests uppermost in her mind.
Other Tories also felt that enough was enough. Edward Leigh reckoned enough was enough and that if we really wanted to get results we’d have offshore processing centres and take pushback action in the Channel. And if a few more died in the short term, it would be worth it in the end as people would eventually learn their lessons and stop attempting the crossing. Julian Lewis said that decent refugees should learn to wait their turn to be resettled and if they attempted to queue-barge they deserved whatever they got. If they wanted to live in Britain they would have to learn to behave like the British. Even if they died waiting.
John Hayes couldn’t understand why people still wanted to come here. After all, we had made it clear we didn’t really want any more foreigners by voting for Brexit. Taking back control of our borders didn’t mean letting any persecuted minority into the country. David Symonds said he was sick of the bleeding heart SNP liberals as the Scots took almost no refugees while his constituency of Hillingdon took about 10% of those entering the country.
Several opposition MPs tried to redress the balance. Jeremy Corbyn pointed out that people were coming because they were desperate. No one would get into an overcrowded rubber boat to attempt a crossing in the freezing cold just for the hell of it. Chi Onwurah and Rachael Maskell made the case for more safe routes with people being able to begin their asylum applications from oversea, while Diana Johnson thought the Home Office had made such a mess of trying to cope with the crisis that the Cabinet Office should assume responsibility for immigration.
Priti Vacant merely shrugged. She reserved the right to deal with immigrants – she still thinks most asylum seekers are on the make – as she liked. And if that included pushing boats back and making the UK as uninviting as possible, then so be it. She did also agree that the BBC’s language in calling the dead migrants had been wrong. In her view, scroungers would have been a far more appropriate word.
- A Farewell to Calm by John Crace (Guardian Faber, £9.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply