Just over a year ago, on the fifth anniversary of the drowning of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, I speculated in print that maybe – just maybe – his horrific death might not have been utterly in vain.
Perhaps, I pondered naively, his dreadful end, conveyed so powerfully by the shocking images of his small body lying face-down at the water’s edge on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey, might save others from the same fate.
Unfortunately, I reckoned without the self-serving determination of politicians and governments to cling to power by pandering to the very worst in human nature.
Last week, deaths among refugees on a scale previously seen only in the Mediterranean finally came to the English Channel, the narrow but nevertheless formidable final barrier to migrants hoping to reach the promised land that many perceive Britain to be.
Twenty-seven people attempting to cross from France to the UK drowned off the French coast when their flimsy rubber boat failed. Among the victims were seven women, one of whom was pregnant, and three children.
This brings to almost 350 the number of asylum-seekers, including 36 children, who have drowned in the Channel over the past 20 years.
What is most striking about this latest tragedy is how the reactions of the two governments that might have prevented it have focused not on cooperating to stop it happening again, but on blaming each other in the pursuit of domestic political agendas.
This year the French government has failed to prevent 25,000 people from risking their lives by crossing the Channel in small boats, either by stopping them putting to sea or by breaking up the cynical gangs of people-smugglers operating with near impunity in France.
Last week photographs emerged of French police officers standing by and watching as a large inflatable was launched on a beach near Calais. On board were more than a dozen adults and six children, aged from about three to seven.
For the French, and for the wider European Union, there is little to be gained by easing Britain’s post-Brexit troubles – especially those troubles related so directly to the Brexiteers’ xenophobic, referendum-winning pledge to “take back control of our borders.”
The EU cannot afford for other European countries to start thinking that Britain has done well out of Brexit.
After the deaths last week, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged that “France will not let the Channel become a cemetery,” overlooking the fact that it already had.
Then, after Macron had called for an emergency meeting of governments, including the British, France played to its electorate’s mounting exasperation with Britain by disinviting British Home Secretary Priti Patel.
The French had taken offense to an extraordinarily undiplomatic public rebuke posted on social media by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Johnson is not exactly known for his mastery of diplomacy. But that alone does not explain why he thought it a good idea to go public with his demands that France should establish joint patrols with British personnel and agree to take back any migrants who made it across the Channel.
This wasn’t diplomacy. This was a very public waving of the isolationist flag by a government battered almost daily by allegations of sleaze and incompetence, and desperate to prove to an increasingly disillusioned electorate that Brexit had some kind of real-world purpose.
Meanwhile, Patel has been under increasing pressure from right-wing Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) to “get tough” on illegal immigrants – an objective she has embraced enthusiastically.
Opening safe routes to the UK for migrants would, of course, kill the business model of the people-smugglers overnight, but that would upset too many Conservative voters and their MPs.
Most astonishingly, at one point Patel proposed a piece of legislation that would have made it an offense, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, to assist anyone attempting to cross illegally to the UK by boat.
Unsurprisingly, the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, whose hugely respected volunteer boat crews have come to the aid of thousands of refugees in various degrees of difficulty in the Channel, was appalled by the knee-jerk reaction.
Meanwhile, as Europe’s “adults” squabble and maneuver for political advantage, children drown and, as they do, there has been little focus on the causes of Britain’s migration problem.
Probably the greatest and yet least acknowledged of the “pull factors” attracting migrants to the UK is the English language, which was imposed on much of the world during the centuries of Britain’s great imperialist adventure.
When desperate people look to migration as the only possible solution to impossible circumstances, naturally those for whom English is a second language are drawn to Britain.
As for the circumstances that trigger migration, economic or otherwise, let us not forget that many of the crises now creating such desperation in the Middle East and beyond owe their origins to past British colonial meddling.
Now, as the rising tide of migration laps at Britain’s south coast, it is no exaggeration to suggest that it had it coming. The very least it should do is own its imperialist past and act apolitically to save the lives of those thrown upon its shores by the currents of British history.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.