On Twitter, Conservative MP for Bournemouth West Conor Burns weighed into the Ben & Jerry’s feud with the Home Secretary over the government’s latest migrant-scapegoating exercise. In response to the ice-cream company’s Twitter thread highlighting why the new ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’ role is an inhumane approach to asylum seekers crossing the channel, Mr Burns replied:

In the informal settlements at Calais and at other places along the UK-France border, asylum seekers live in limbo. They wait in precarious living conditions, without adequate shelter, food or enough access to safe drinking water. Police brutality towards the migrants is common. They evict these already displaced people every other day and regularly destroy their make-shift homes. Surely it’s France’s fault for this inhumane treatment? Actually, the UK help pay for it. Since 2010, the UK has funnelled over £350 million towards border securitisation in Calais, which includes erecting walls and barbed wire fences, drone patrols, CCTV and other detection equipment, as well as contributing to border police operations. The UK are complicit in the violence and persecution happening across the Channel.

And then came Covid. Lockdown for the people in the camps at Calais meant withdrawal of staff from many charities and organisations who would ordinarily offer assistance and a corresponding shut-down of legal options to claim asylum in either France or the UK. Police continued to evict from and destroy living sites. The poor living conditions and perpetual harassment left migrants exposed and vulnerable to the burgeoning health crisis. Some were transferred to crowded shelters – unsuitable accommodation at the best of times, but in a pandemic? Two water taps for over a thousand people in the main Calais camp. No masks. No sanitiser. And the UK didn’t redirect any of its border funding towards providing adequate shelter or aid. Instead, up went the already prohibitively narrow, expensive and limited draw-bridge for asylum seekers to make a legal claim for asylum in the UK. During lockdown, two resettlement schemes that provided legal and safe routes for asylum in the UK, came to an end, and asylum applications have plunged. Right now, there is no legal way to claim asylum until you reach British soil.

In a time of great uncertainty and fear, the UK public have suffered the immense heartache of separation from their loved ones. Some of the asylum seekers making the desperate and dangerous journey across the channel are doing so to reunite with theirs, after heart-breakingly long periods of separation. There is currently no legal route for family reunification. Many in the refugee camps are left to feel that heartache still. Even supposing the situation in France was not as described above, under the Refugee Convention, asylum seekers are not legally obligated to make an asylum claim in the first ‘safe’ country they enter.

There are many reasons why asylum seekers might choose to come to the UK. They come for safety, to be with their families, for community links, their existing language skills, or because of bad experiences they’ve had in other countries they’ve traveled to. And most asylum seekers trying to reach the UK won’t know of the asylum situation that awaits them on arrival.

So we can add ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’ to a long list of ineffective and heartless deterrents; asylum seekers barred from work, paid measly living allowance, locked up in detention centres, long waits of over six months, sometimes years for their claims to be processed. Still, they’ll come for family, community and safety. And still, communities all over the UK will welcome them, warmly and with respect, compassion and celebration. Asylum seekers, refugees and migrants are always welcome in BCP.

The UK Government need to be reinstating and expanding safe, legal routes to claim asylum here in the face of this pandemic crisis, rather than consigning people to dangerous living arrangements or desperate means of passage to reach our shores. And they need to send out rescue boats, not Naval ships. Extend life lines, not barriers. You’d have to be callous or ignorant to make a comment like that Mr Burns. If it’s the latter, well now you know the facts.

Simon Bull

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