I have spent a large part of my adult life in the landlocked Leeds and Bradford area but I grew up on the island of Bute seven miles from the Scottish mainland. Even on a summer’s day I can’t imagine making the sea journey in a flimsy boat rather than taking the CalMac ferry. Doing it in winter darkness would be my worst nightmare.
The stretch of water between Calais and Dover is three times that distance, so the desperation felt by those people who are crossing the English Channel in record numbers is appallingly clear to me.
It shames all of us that the White Cliffs of Dover – our own wartime symbol of freedom from the forces of evil – now represent a closed door to people who are fleeing oppression and war so that they must risk their lives and those of their families to prise it open.
As it happens, Bute was one of the first places in the UK to offer new homes to refugees from the Syrian conflict. Around 100 have been resettled in the island’s main town, Rothesay. When they were bussed to the mainland ferry terminal after arriving at Glasgow Airport in December 2015, bad weather delayed their onward passage by several hours, during which a Scottish government rep insensitively tried to entertain them with stories about shipwrecks and basking sharks, and added “we haven’t seen Jaws for a wee while”. Fortunately, a ferry was eventually able to set sail and they began their new lives on the island.
The Scottish government welcomed twice as many Syrian refugees as the UK average, and their integration with communities has been a success. In Rothesay, they were quick to start businesses and make friends. Some told dark stories of how they got there. Mounzer, for example, was imprisoned in the early days of the Syrian war but managed to escape to Lebanon. He now runs one of the town’s barbershops.
In March this year the UK government announced the closure of its Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme after accepting 20,000 refugees, so for people like Mounzer there is no longer a legal route into Britain. We also scrapped the Dubs scheme, which helped to relocate child refugees, and after Brexit we withdrew from the Dublin III scheme, which speeded up applications for asylum.
The above are a big part of why business is booming for people smugglers. The Syrian conflict’s tenth anniversary was earlier this year and thousands are still fleeing for their lives, yet we have now turned our backs on them. We are doing the same to Iranians driven out by the oppressive regime that holds Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe hostage in Tehran, and to Kurds escaping persecution from Iraqi and Turkish forces.
It is not surprising that these three groups make up the vast majority of people attempting that perilous Channel crossing, and Afghans escaping from the Taliban are starting to increase in number. At the French end of the Chunnel and around every dock there are now trip wires, heat sensors, beefed-up patrols. Little wonder that having reached the French coast so many men, women and children are endangering their lives.
It is time we set up a humanitarian visa scheme to stop this madness for good. Otherwise the UK government is complicit with the people smugglers.